oDR: Analysis

Will Ukraine run elections during a war?

Ukraine’s Western allies are pushing for the country to hold elections. But the issue is vexed regardless of who wins

Vladyslav Faraponov
7 September 2023, 9.39am
Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyi has called on the US and EU to finance election security

(c) Kaniuka Ruslan / Ukrinform/Future Publishing via Getty Images. All rights reserved

Amid calls from international partners, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyi is stuck with a difficult choice: whether or not to hold parliamentary and presidential elections during a war.

On a recent trip to Kyiv, US senator Lindsey Graham – one of the most active advocates of aid to Ukraine – called on the Ukrainian authorities to consider holding elections as soon as possible, despite martial law still being in effect. Tiny Kox, president of the parliamentary assembly of the Council of Europe, has made a similar call.

The idea of holding both presidential and parliamentary elections in 2024 has been in the air for some time in Ukraine. The presidential race is supposed to conclude on 31 March 2024, and the parliamentary campaign – on 29 October this year. That, at least, will not happen because Parliament has just prolonged martial law for another 90 days: Ukrainian laws forbid holding any elections while martial law is imposed, and election campaigns are supposed to last at least 90 days.

The argument in favour of elections is simple: Zelenskyi wants to show that Ukraine is not Russia, and that democracy matters to him and Ukrainian citizens. Besides, Western partners may find it strange that Ukraine would not conduct elections while claiming it is defending democracy in Europe and worldwide.

Get the free oDR newsletter

A weekly summary of our latest stories about the post-Soviet world.

But conducting elections in Ukraine would be a challenge. More than seven million people have left the country, and around a million Ukrainians are fighting in the army, not to mention the unknown number of Ukrainians in the Russian-occupied parts of Luhansk and Donetsk regions in the east and south, as well as Crimea.

Ensuring election security is a priority for any country. But Russia would likely be ready for any election day or days that took place, meaning Ukraine’s central authorities would be unable to guarantee voters’ safety.

Zelenskyi has suggested that the EU and US should share responsibility for financing wartime election security, pointing out the complexity of involving international and local observers in polling stations close to the front. Then there’s the fact that Ukraine’s counteroffensive in 2023 brought back 241 square kilometres of its land. If the Ukrainian army continues to liberate territory village by village, town by town, in eastern and southern Ukraine, it is anyone’s guess where the front line could be by the time of an election.

In peacetime, the transition from one government to another takes some time, usually months. Ukraine does not have this luxury

One option among Zelenskyi’s close circle is that elections could be held online via the popular government app, Diya. The app has already been used to conduct polling, but not a nationwide vote that includes voters abroad.

Almost 20 million Ukrainians use the app and are eager to vote online, but there are security issues here, too, about its use and storage of personal information. It’s not unimaginable that Russia could try to hack the app to get voters’ data and disrupt the process.

Zelenskyi still tops opinion polls of politicians, with more than 81% of Ukrainians saying they trust him. But there is no recent polling data to compare him directly with other candidates in terms of presidential ambitions.

Another major question is what would happen were Zelenskyi to lose an election midway through a war.

If Volodymyr Zelenskyi loses, some Ukrainians fear the country would have to begin peace negotiations with Russia, which may not conclude in their favour. In particular, the idea that Ukraine might go back to a situation of ‘frozen conflict’ is particularly unpopular in the country. In this scenario, active fighting would come to an end, but no peace treaty would resolve the conflict to the satisfaction of the combatants. This is what happened between 2014 and 2022.

That’s why the Ukrainian public doesn’t appear to want compromise with Russia: more than 68% Ukrainians see victory as meaning a complete defeat of Russia, leading to the liberation of all the occupied territories (43%) or even the collapse of Russia itself (26%).

What’s more, in peacetime, the transition from one government to another takes some time, usually months. Ukraine does not have this luxury.

In Ukraine today, people are discussing the prospect of “winning the war, but losing the peace” – the potential revenge of corruption and backroom practices. The first elections after Russia’s full-scale war should symbolise Ukraine’s new era and a final goodbye to the old, corrupt, way of doing things. If Zelenskyi can’t find a way to guarantee security during the election process, it is likely Ukraine won’t have elections until the war is over.

We’ve got a newsletter for everyone

Whatever you’re interested in, there’s a free openDemocracy newsletter for you.

Get oDR emails Occasional updates from our team covering the post-Soviet space Sign up here


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData