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Why Ukraine’s Elections Can Wait

Ukrainians’ first priority is defending their country from Russia’s invasion. They would rather hold fair, free, and inclusive elections than vote for the sake of voting. 

By Olga Onuch and Lucan Way

May 2024

Under normal circumstances, Ukraine would have held elections by now — for parliament last fall and president this past spring. But because of Russia’s ongoing war of aggression, the country hasn’t held elections since 2019, and doesn’t plan to hold them anytime soon. What should we make of this in a country widely praised for its democratic resilience? Is the decision to postpone elections while the country is under attack justified, or does it threaten Ukraine’s democracy?

Some see it as problematic. Last year, conservative U.S. politicians called for Ukraine to hold free and fair elections “even while it is under assault.” Russian state media have called Zelensky’s legitimacy “in question,” warning that the Ukrainian president will become a “usurper.” Russian propaganda aside, organizing an inclusive, free, and fair national vote right now would be extremely challenging, and could damage Ukraine’s democracy. Despite martial law and the country’s existential struggle with Russia, Ukraine remains remarkably pluralist — even without elections.

A year ago, some in government thought that it might be possible to hold the presidential election despite the war, not least because the president would have won easily: According to data collected by MOBILISE (led by Olga Onuch) in partnership with the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology (KIIS), Zelensky’s approval was sky-high at 85 percent in July 2023, even with few gains on the battlefield. That number has since dipped — to 77 percent in late 2023. More recent data from February suggest that trust in Zelensky also declined from 77 to 64 percent in February 2024, likely because of Zelensky’s unpopular decision to reshuffle the army leadership. Nonetheless, the president remains the most popular and trusted politician in Ukraine by a wide margin. Only military figures such as former army commander-in-chief Valerii Zaluzhnyi and army-intelligence chief Kyrylo Budanov are more popular than Zelensky.

Ultimately the government chose not to hold elections — a decision that was in line with both the recommendations of local elections-focused NGOs and Ukrainian public opinion: According to a December 2023 survey, 84 percent of Ukrainians opposed holding a presidential election. When asked in February 2024 what should happen in lieu of elections, 69 percent preferred that Zelensky stay in office until the end of martial law. Even among those who dislike the president, it is hard to find anyone in Ukraine who supports holding a vote now. Opposition leaders such as former prime minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk have publicly recognized that, despite their disagreements with the president on most things, now is not the time to go to the polls and Zelensky’s legitimacy is not in question.

Why No Elections?

There are several reasons for such widespread opposition to wartime balloting. Elections are expensive: The presidential election is expected to cost nearly US$200 million and parliamentary elections, another $135 million. Under normal circumstances this would be a small percentage of the national budget. But right now, the state needs to direct all resources to the war and humanitarian-relief efforts. Ukraine’s urgent need for weapons makes it hard for many citizens to stomach spending this kind of money on anything apart from the war, including elections. Last October, residents in cities throughout Ukraine took to the streets to protest municipal spending on repair and construction projects, arguing that all available funds should be directed toward military defense.

Security would also pose a challenge. The country’s paper-ballot voting process and the infrastructure behind it would present the Russian military with new and highly vulnerable targets, including polling stations (normally schools), electoral-administration offices and websites, printing presses, and delivery vans transporting ballots. Elections experts have begun to develop a new electronic-voting system, but introducing a new system would require parliamentary approval and would have to be designed so that every Ukrainian could participate — including those with no access to mobile devices or internet signals. Moreover, an e-voting system would be vulnerable to Russian hacking campaigns. Russian attacks on any of these targets would threaten not just Ukrainian lives and infrastructure but the election outcome itself, and could undermine the very legitimacy of the Ukrainian state.

The most fundamental reason for not holding elections is that approximately a third of the country’s population would face enormous challenges participating — including around 6.5 million Ukrainians living abroad (over a million of whom reside in Russia) and five million living in Russian-occupied Ukrainian territories, as well as nearly four million internally displaced people and a million active military personnel. Finding and registering these displaced Ukrainians would be an enormous undertaking, one that would effectively be impossible in Russia or areas under Russian control, which include Crimea and five Ukrainian provinces. Locating Ukrainian military personnel would not be hard, but arranging a free and fair vote on the frontlines would be. How does one ensure a secret ballot in the trenches? In addition, active warfare in significant parts of Ukrainian-controlled territory creates obvious difficulties: Missile and other attacks occur almost daily in various parts of Ukraine, including large cities such as Kharkiv.

All this means that voter turnout would not only be low, but would systematically underrepresent those Ukrainians most directly affected by the war. Chosen by a rump of the population, winners of such elections might be considered illegitimate by at least some of the population. And Russia would likely make its own accusations of illegitimacy in an effort to polarize Ukrainian voters and cast international doubt on Ukraine’s democracy.

Very few democracies have held elections with an active military conflict on their territory. Among European democracies directly affected by World War II, only Denmark (under German occupation) held elections during the war. Great Britain did not hold elections between 1935 and the war’s end in July 1945. The United States did hold elections in 1864 during the American Civil War, but without the participation of nine Confederate states. This does not seem to be a good model to follow: The systematic exclusion of Southern states almost certainly exacerbated polarization in the country.

Thus, while it is certainly possible to hold some kind of elections in Ukraine, it would be nearly impossible to hold ones that are free, fair, and inclusive. Some Ukrainians fear that election campaigning would sow divisions in society at a moment when the country needs to remain united. Moreover, organizing elections now would divert scarce resources and attention away from defending Ukraine against the existential threat from Russia.

Elections cannot be put off indefinitely, though. The obstacles described above are unlikely to disappear anytime soon, and there are real, long-term costs to not holding elections. Elected parliamentarians who retire cannot be replaced without new elections — causing a slow but steady decline in the number of deputies. At some point, parliament may lack a quorum.

Tremendous amounts of preparation and planning must go into any elections to mitigate the problems described above. Ukrainian leaders, election practitioners, and international allies must begin preparing for future elections, designate aid to finance them, and work to sort out any logistical questions. The time to plan is now if there is to be a ballot in the next two years.

Pluralism Despite Martial Law

Even absent elections, Ukraine remains remarkably pluralist. Visiting Kyiv today, one would never know that the country is under martial law. There are almost no military officers on city streets. Opposition parties operate freely. While weaker than before the war, parliament continues to play a central role in governing the country. Parliament votes to renew and extend martial law every ninety days, which the president then confirms. A major law on mobilization that passed in mid-April was the product of months of intense debate and more than 4,200 amendments. Pluralism in the legislature has also been enhanced by the weakening of Zelensky’s Servant of the People party. While the party garnered 254 seats in the 2019 election, more than forty of those deputies have since gone into de facto opposition and many others frequently fail to show up to vote. As a result, the party often seeks out opposition support to pass legislation. Key opposition parties have risen to the occasion to work across partisan divides.

Certainly, the impact of martial law is real: Not only have elections been postponed, but a number of pro-Russian parties were banned in early 2022 for engaging in “anti-Ukrainian activities.” Freedom of speech has also been constrained. After the full-scale invasion, three opposition-oriented television stations (Espresso TV, Channel 5, and Direct) were taken off the main digital television-broadcasting system after they refused to join the “United News Telemarathon,” an effort to merge all news channels into a single 24-hour news program. The Telemarathon has been criticized for progovernment bias because it relies on official government information and is less critical of the government. In 2023, 67 percent of parliamentarians who appeared on the program came from the Servant of the People Party, a greater percentage than its share of seats in parliament.

Despite such problems, the media remain remarkably free. The three stations dropped from the digital TV-broadcasting system continue to operate via satellite or online, and they remain highly critical of President Zelensky. And while journalists complain about restricted access to the frontline, stories of government corruption and criticism of Zelensky abound in the Ukrainian media. Even on the Telemarathon, dissenting voices and loud critics of the president are frequent guests. On one of its seven stations, opposition deputies accounted for 60 percent of the lawmakers invited to speak. Furthermore, efforts at censorship rarely succeed in Ukraine. Attempts by administration insiders to control the Telemarathon have been met with intense public scrutiny and backlash, and viewership has plummeted in recent months. Social media also continue to provide a space for robust criticism and debate. Beyond Facebook and X (formerly Twitter), Telegram channels —  subscribed to by more than 70 percent of Ukrainians —  operate with few restrictions. In fact, Ukraine’s ranking in Reporters Without Borders’ 2024 World Press Freedom Index has improved, jumping to 61 from 106 in 2022.

Finally, the bottom-up mobilization that was key to Ukraine’s early military successes remains robust and continues to influence policymaking in the country. For example, more than 25,000 citizens signed a petition in late March to regulate online gambling by soldiers on the front. Within a month, Zelensky signed a decree doing just that. The president has stayed intensely attuned to the public mood in Ukraine.

While the Russian invasion has certainly put limits on the country’s democracy, pluralism is still alive and kicking, even without elections. This augurs well for the future of Ukrainian democracy when the war is finally over.

Olga Onuch is professor of comparative and Ukrainian politics (chair) at the University of Manchester and principal investigator of the MOBILISE Project, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council of the United Kingdom government. She is the author (with Henry E. Hale) of The Zelensky Effect (2022). Lucan Way is Distinguished Professor of Democracy at the University of Toronto, co-director of the Petro Jacyk Program for the Study of Ukraine, and co-chair of the Journal of Democracy Editorial Board.


Copyright © 2024 National Endowment for Democracy

Image credit: VASILY MAXIMOV/AFP via Getty Images




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