Can Ukraine afford a wartime presidential election?

Volodymyr Zelensky at the 2019 Ukrainian elections / Photo EPA-EFE/STEPAN FRANKO

For months, Ukraine has been embroiled in a heated debate over whether the country should hold presidential elections in March next year, as originally planned.

All elections – including presidential ones – are banned under the country's current martial law, imposed after Russia launched its full-scale invasion in February 2022.

Many in Ukraine resent the idea, fearing the vote could distract the nation from its fight for survival. Tensions eased after President Volodymyr Zelensky said in November that it was "not the right time" for elections. But the issue appears to be far from over and has fueled a political confrontation not seen in the country since the start of Russia's full-scale invasion. One of the biggest driving forces for the dispute lies not in Ukraine, but in the United States, he writes BBC.

The discussion about the Ukrainian elections is being pushed in part by US politicians ahead of the country's 2024 elections, especially by a small group within the Republican Party, says Olha Aivazovska, president of the Opora election monitoring network. She claims that some Republicans are using the issue to justify their demand to block military aid to Ukraine.

And these voices are getting louder. As Donald Trump's isolationist views gain more influence in the Republican Party, the issue of support for Ukraine is mired in US domestic politics and party divisions.

Although many Republicans support Ukraine, "that does not mean that the far-right wing of this party will not use this topic against Ukraine next year during the presidential elections in the United States," says Aivazovska.

They already do that. Earlier this month, Vivek Ramaswamy, one of the Republican candidates for the presidential nomination, claimed that Ukraine "is not a paragon of democracy" and that "there will be no elections this year unless the United States floods in more money."

Vivek Ramaswamy / Photo EPA-EFE/CRISTOBAL HERRERA-ULASHKEVICH

Republican US Senator Lindsey Graham had these votes in mind when, during his August visit to Kiev, he said that Ukraine must hold presidential elections in 2024.

And President Zelensky understands that he has to respond to this growing rhetoric coming from the US: the country is Ukraine's main ally, and its military aid is vital to fight against the Russian invasion.

"There are several things that can divide American support [for Ukraine]," Zelensky said in an interview with Ukrainian television last August. "One of them is the election, because as far as I know there are votes [against continued support] in the Republican Party.

Until recently, Zelensky did not completely reject the elections. He cited all the challenges – such as security, legislation and funding – and added that he was "ready" and would run for a second term if elections were held in wartime. In a recent interview with Ukrainian television, Zelensky stated that he "would like [to hold elections] within a year."

Earlier this month, Ukraine's foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, said Zelensky was "weighing the pros and cons" of holding elections during wartime.

Kuleba and Zelenski / Photo EPA-EFE/JUSTIN LANE

Even if martial law is changed to allow elections, there are many obstacles to holding the vote. Safety is the main thing. Displaced population is the other obstacle.

"It is impossible to hold elections during the war when millions of our citizens are abroad or internally displaced," says Olena Shulyak, MP and head of the ruling Servant of the People party.

Other challenges include damage to schools – which are commonly used as polling stations, an outdated electoral roll, restricted rights under martial law and a lack of funding. Experts agree that in the current circumstances holding free and fair elections with a competitive political process is simply not possible.

It is not surprising then that the idea of ​​holding presidential elections is deeply unpopular in Ukraine. A survey conducted by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology in November found that more than 80 percent of respondents wanted elections to be held only after the end of the war.

MPs from both the opposition and ruling parties repeatedly claim that it is wrong to hold elections next year. But President Zelenski's ambiguous statements about the possibility of holding elections caused a domestic reaction.

Opposition lawmakers and the media began reporting that the authorities were preparing to hold presidential elections in 2024. Some politicians have even announced that they plan to run for president.

Speculation has grown that President Zelenskiy's popularity will decline due to the stalemate on the front line, and that he therefore wants to hold the 2024 elections as planned while his poll ratings are still high.

In an attempt to quash the rumours, the president gave a televised address in early November and said "it is not the right time for elections".

"We must decide that now is the time of defense, the time of battle, on which the fate of the country and the people depends," he said.

Alina Zagorujko, MP and head of the parliamentary subcommittee on elections and referendums, claims that Volodymyr Zelensky will remain as the legitimate president even after his term expires next spring. Article 108 of Ukraine's constitution states that the current head of state performs his duties until the newly elected president takes office.

Volodymyr Zelensky / Photo EPA-EFE/YVES HERMAN / POOL

But if the war drags on much longer, then at some point "it may be a problem and we may have to explore the possibilities of holding elections even in such conditions," Zagorujko said.

However, most politicians and experts agree that they should start preparing for the post-war elections now.

Many villages and towns like Bakhmut or Zaporozhye are in ruins. Most of their population is either dead or scattered across the country and beyond. The electoral infrastructure has been destroyed. Holding elections in those areas will be extremely challenging even in peacetime.

Another issue is the voters. Of the eight million Ukrainian refugees, many are unlikely to return home quickly even after the war ends. Thus, the authorities must agree with foreign governments on the expansion of polling stations abroad, says Olena Shulyak.

But MPs do not want to discuss these issues because such events are seen as preparation for wartime elections. Citizens immediately accuse these politicians of treason. As progress on the front line effectively stalled, the fear of losing national unity grew stronger.

Most Ukrainian parties and political groups seem to agree that they cannot afford to plunge back into peacetime political squabbling while still fighting Russia. But the longer the war drags on, the harder it will be to maintain this consensus, in part because of internal politics in Ukraine's Western partners.

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