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Ukraine Doesn’t Want Wartime Elections

Zelensky is following the law—and the public mood.

By , a British Lebanese freelance journalist focusing on conflict, human rights, and the Middle East.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks during a joint press conference with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen following their talks in Kyiv.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks during a joint press conference with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen following their talks in Kyiv.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks during a joint press conference with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen following their talks in Kyiv on Nov. 4. Anatolii Stepanov/AFP via Getty Images

Russia’s War in Ukraine

Last week, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky confirmed that the country’s presidential election, that in peacetime would be expected next March, will not be taking place while Ukraine remains under martial law and is in a state of war with Russia.

Last week, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky confirmed that the country’s presidential election, that in peacetime would be expected next March, will not be taking place while Ukraine remains under martial law and is in a state of war with Russia.

Western right-wing social media personalities predictably greeted this news as confirmation of their prejudices against Ukrainian democracy. Failed politician and 2020 U.S. election denier Kari Lake was among those who complained, saying on X, formerly known as Twitter, “Zelensky is considering canceling elections in Ukraine. I didn’t realize that Democracy could just be turned off & on like a TV.” Not wanting to be left out, reactionary Michael Tracey dedicated several tweets to misunderstanding Ukraine’s constitution while furiously denouncing his own followers for correcting his mistakes via X’s Community Notes feature, claiming that “it’s totally false that holding elections during Martial Law is ‘banned’ by Ukraine’s constitution.” (The Community Note is, in fact, correct, and Tracey is, of course, wrong.)

So while, I hope, everyone knows not to take such figures seriously, Americans might still have qualms over the failure to hold elections. The United States itself has a habit, rare among democracies, of keeping the vote going even during wartime, as in 1864 and 1944.

Thus, it’s worth going into detail as to why the Ukrainian government has taken this position and how the Ukrainian electorate is responding to that. This news certainly didn’t come as a surprise to anyone in Ukraine, and the pressure surrounding wartime elections has been entirely external, leaving many Ukrainians baffled. The most prominent of these interventions was made by U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, who on a visit to Kyiv in August said he believed the Ukrainian government should hold elections in 2024. While it should be noted that, in responding to Graham, Zelensky appeared to hold the door open for elections next year, he also stressed that they were legally prohibited under martial law in the same interview.

These opinions are not confined to American conservatives either, with the president of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, Tiny Kox, telling European Pravda in May that Ukraine is expected to “organize free and fair elections,” shortly before walking those comments back in a subsequent interview.

For the overwhelming majority of Ukrainians, the idea of holding elections next spring is absurd. A recent poll conducted by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology found that 81 percent of respondents thought that elections should not be held until after the end of the war. This view is shared across the country, with those in the eastern and southern regions most impacted by the ongoing conflict also overwhelmingly opposing holding elections during the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Ukrainian civil society has also reached the same conclusion, with more than 200 civil society institutions, NGOs, and human rights networks officially declaring their opposition to holding wartime elections. The prospect of holding elections next year had already been deemed “impossible” by Ukraine’s leading election monitoring NGO Opora in July, long before Graham arrived in Kyiv for his moment in front of the cameras.

For those who are unaware of what martial law is, in most countries it entails the suspension of a civilian government, replacing it with a military administration enacted during times of war, and it normally involves the curtailment of peacetime political freedoms such as freedom of speech and the freedom of assembly. While martial law is never a positive political development for a nation-state, at times of war, such as the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, such legal measures become unfortunately necessary to save lives.

Both constitutionally and legally speaking, the Ukrainian government is simply following Ukrainian law. The Ukrainian constitution and martial law legislation clearly prohibit presidential, parliamentary, and local elections from taking place under martial law, and Zelensky’s comments last week were merely a repetition of what other Ukrainian government officials have said on this topic in recent months. Other European countries, such as Germany, have similar provisions for postponing wartime elections.

In response to Kox’s comment in May, Oleksiy Danilov, the secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, said: “The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe should clearly understand that there is a Constitution and laws of our country that we have to live by, and we will figure it out on our own. No elections can be held during martial law.”

Similarly, in June, Ruslan Stefanchuk, the speaker of Ukraine’s parliament, said: “If elections were possible during martial law, it could lead to the rupture of the state, which our enemy is waiting for. That is why I think the most correct and wise decision is to hold elections immediately after the end of martial law.”

Speaking in August, Ukrainian Interior Minister Ihor Klymenko said: “It will be very difficult to hold elections in the country under such conditions. Indeed, there is martial law, there is war. When we end the war, then we will talk about elections.”

Some might dismiss the position of Ukrainian officials due to their own self-interest in remaining in power. If Zelensky were trying to cling to power against the wishes of Ukraine’s electorate, martial law would seem to provide the Ukrainian government with the legal and constitutional power to do just that.

However, this theory collapses on contact with Ukraine’s opinion polls. A survey taken this summer on a potential presidential election in Ukraine showed that more than 70 percent of respondents were planning to vote for Zelensky, with more than 50 percent of respondents supporting his ruling Servant of the People party.

The scale of the commanding lead that Zelensky has over his political opponents is nearly unheard of in any democracies, let alone Western ones. Few leaders around the world have the same level of popular support and legitimacy that Zelensky’s government currently holds. This is not a government that is in doubt about its democratic legitimacy, and if there were elections in March, the results would be almost guaranteed to be a landslide victory.

It is also true that Zelensky’s government under martial law banned 11 opposition political parties last March. However, the part that is often left out by those complaining about this is that these parties had explicit links to the Russian government and were in many cases actively assisting the Russian invasion. It’s hard to imagine any country not responding the same way when under invasion. For example, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s government banned Oswald Mosley’s pro-Nazi British Union of Fascists at the outbreak of World War II. Again, none of this means that Ukraine is no longer a functioning democracy—it is merely a democracy that is currently fighting off an invading army.

The final point is also the most overlooked by external observers pressuring the Ukrainian government into violating its constitutional obligations: the matter of safety. Holding elections while Russia continues to bombard civilian targets in Ukraine on a daily basis is not just dangerous; it is outright irresponsible. The Russian military has a track record of systematically targeting any large congregations of Ukrainian civilians. In October, Russia bombed a cafe where people had gathered for a wake, leaving 59 people dead.

In any wartime election, polling stations would become high-value targets for a Russian dictatorship that is hellbent on destroying Ukrainian democracy and a Russian military that carries out war crimes against civilians as its modus operandi.

Furthermore, 20 percent of Ukraine’s territory is under Russian occupation, and those citizens have just as much right as those living in Kyiv or Lviv to participate in Ukrainian elections, but trying to organize those under Russian occupation would put participants and organizers under mortal peril. Ukraine does not have the means of ensuring the safety of its electorate during this democratic process, and it’s arguable that no democratic nation could ensure the safety of its citizens under these conditions.

Lastly, while this situation has not arisen in Western democracies since the end of World War II, the United Kingdom also did not hold elections between 1940 and 1945, and at no point during that time were substantial parts of Britain occupied by Nazi Germany. Most of democratic Europe was occupied during World War II, but during World War I, France and other nations suspended elections. I have never heard anyone try to say this meant those countries ceased being democracies. The United States was able to hold elections during wartime because the front line was mercifully distant; Ukraine does not have that luxury.

Given that the overwhelming majority of Ukrainian politicians, Ukrainian civil society, and the Ukrainian electorate have categorically rejected the notion of holding elections while the country remains locked in an existential war with Russia, there is little excuse for external observers to be piling additional pressure onto Kyiv to hold a dangerous, illegal vanity contest with an already foregone conclusion.

Oz Katerji is a British Lebanese freelance journalist focusing on conflict, human rights, and the Middle East. Twitter: @OzKaterji

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