Ukraine Baffled by Western Pressure to Hold Elections During War 

Opposition parties and civil society say fair and safe elections are impossible now 

6 October 2023

Aleksandra Klitina

Future of Ukraine Fellow

Ukraine has come under pressure from some Western politicians to hold scheduled parliamentary and presidential elections despite the war, but the opposition and civil society organisations argue such a vote would favour incumbent parties and potentially skew the result by making it hard for its citizen-soldiers and refugees to participate.

As if fighting a war with a brutal invader and having to work hard to sustain international support was not enough of a task, Ukrainian authorities and President Volodymir Zelenskyy have come under rising pressure from some Western politicians to organise parliamentary and presidential elections, allegedly to underline Ukraine’s democratic credentials.

For most Ukrainians, these demands are baffling. The country is displaying unprecedented unity in focusing on the war effort, and its political elites, civil society organisations and the broader public share the view that holding an election under bombs and with citizen-soldiers at the front is not a priority but certainly a huge logistical and security challenge.

US Republicans lead the call for elections  

Parliamentary elections were scheduled for this October, while the presidential one for spring 2024. The Ukrainian constitution and laws governing the conduct of war effectively bar the country from holding elections during martial law, which parliament imposed at the start of Russia’s aggression in February 2022.

The question of whether to lift the martial law, amend the constitution and hold the two votes has been simmering for some time in Ukraine among politicians and academics but became a hot topic only after some prominent Westerners, including US Republicans and prominent media personalities not necessarily friendly towards Ukraine, raised the issue in public.

One such vice was Senator Lindsey Graham, who seemed to imply that holding the elections soon would help muster support for further aid to Ukraine among sceptical Republicans from the isolationist wing of the party and conservative pundits often aligned with Donald Trump.

“My message to the president today is that I am impressed with what you and your country, men and women, have done. We will continue to fight to get weapons to you so that you can win the war that we cannot afford to lose. But you also have to do two things at the same time. You have to have elections in Ukraine next year,” Graham said after talks with Zelenskyy in Kyiv in August.

Graham, like other “old school”  Republicans, including Senate leader Mitch McConnel are in favour of supporting Ukraine, but they are mindful that the issue has become hostage in a wider confrontation of their radicalised party with the Democrats.

On Tuesday, the Republican leader, Kevin McCarthy, lost his speakership of the House of Representatives after a handful of radical Republicans voted with the opposition to vacate the seat. While some of the Republican votes against McCarthy were personal, these far-right members were adamantly against any deal-making with the Democrats, including any funding for Ukraine. The Democrats decided not to save McCarthy in the vote after he tried to make further financial aid to Kyiv dependent on a Republican measure to reverse US migration policy drastically.

Others have also taken up the cause, including conservative commentators such as Tucker Carlson, who have accused Zelenskyy of “cancelling” the election to stay in power, thus feeding into the Kremlin’s spurious narrative that he, rather than Vladimir Putin, is an authoritarian.

US administration mum, Europeans understanding Kyiv 

Zelenskyy and his officials have acknowledged the democratic dilemma over the postponement of elections and that the issue may have an impact on relations with its Western backers, even if President Joe Biden’s administration has not formally raised it.

“No one (in the administration) asks such questions, honestly. But we know that this is an important topic for Americans, we have read the statements of some congressmen,”  Zelenskyy’s top adviser Andriy Yermak was quoted as saying.

European institutions and governments have largely waved the topic away, acknowledging that Kyiv had other priorities while Zelenskyy’s democratic legitimacy remained impeccable.

“I think we all agree that without the elections, democracy cannot properly function. What I want to say to the government and the parliament and the people of Ukraine – it is in your hands to decide whether and when elections will take place,” said Tiny Kox, President of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. “As long as martial law is there and your constitution is as it is, there will not be elections.”

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Germany, which has swung strongly in favour of Kyiv’s EU membership in recent months, expressed a similar sentiment.

“In principle, we believe that the values of democratic expression of will and elections are important, but we must take into account the special situation that is, and for the foreseeable future will remain, in Ukraine,” government spokesman Steffen Hebestreit said on 4 September.

“Ukraine has been at war for more than 18 months as a result of Russia’s aggressive onslaught, it is forced to defend itself, to defend its territorial integrity and sovereignty. This is currently the most important issue,” he said.

Zelenskyy declares he is ready for the challenge 

The pragmatic approach of the Europeans notwithstanding, the topic of elections suddenly became widely discussed in Ukraine.

Zelenskyy declared that he was ready to face voters in a bid for re-election next year, as long as the participation of nearly one million Ukrainian citizen-soldiers as well as several million Ukrainian refugees abroad could be assured. The soldiers, internally displaced persons and refugees constitute almost one-fourth of the country’s entire population of around 40 million.

“We need a legitimate process in which the public can make the choice. It shouldn’t divide our people and ensure the military can vote. They are defending our democracy today, and to not give them that opportunity (to vote) because of the war is unfair,” he said in a recent interview.

The credibility of his stance is enhanced by the often ignored fact that, if anything, Zelenskyy and his Servant of the People party would likely benefit politically from holding both elections sooner than later.

The 45-year-old president remains the country’s most popular politician, according to the latest poll in July, and would have an enormous advantage over his potential opponents. His party also enjoys solid support, even though opinion polls indicate it would not command a majority of the Verkhovna Rada. After the war, this picture may actually get trickier for the incumbents as popular contenders appear and reconstruction challenges emerge.

According to a survey conducted in January, Servant of the People was supported by 41 percent of Ukrainians, just a tad lower than the 43 percent it won in the 2019 vote. Admittedly, the survey showed a yet-to-be-formed party of popular civil activist Serhiy Prytula could count on 49 percent support, with the UDAR party of Vitali Klitschko, the popular former boxing champion and current mayor of Kyiv, in third place.

Like Zelenskyy, Servant of the People says it is ready to face voters if the logistical issues can be resolved.

Opposition and civil society against 

Regardless of whether such declarations of those in power should be taken at face value or are just lip service to democracy, one thing is clear – the opposition parties and civil society organisations vehemently oppose holding both votes anytime soon.

Prytula, who might be the leading contender to challenge Zelenskyy, called the idea of holding the elections during the all-consuming war and with eight million Ukrainian refugees scattered abroad “ridiculous”.

“I personally believe that this is maximum ridiculousness – elections during the war,” he said in September. “What can be the legitimacy of this expression of people’s will without ensuring it applies to 8 million Ukrainian refugees. It is impossible.”

Opposition parties in the Rada, surely aware of Servant of the People’s relative advantage during the war, are also clear they agree to postpone the elections.

“No one will support this in society. The election is technically or morally not feasible. I am sure there will be no elections in Ukraine during wartime, ” Yaroslav Zheleznyak, from the Holos faction in the Rada, said.

Even if the claim of universal opposition to elections may be exaggerated, this is certainly a view shared by the majority of Ukrainians. A survey conducted in August by the New Image Marketing Group at the request of the Ukrainian Institute for the Future, 76 percent of respondents said that presidential elections should be held only after Ukraine’s victory, while 61 percent gave a similar answer regarding elections to the Verkhovna Rada.

A more univocal opposition to holding elections comes from Ukraine’s vibrant third sector. One hundred civil society organisations signed a statement on the impossibility of holding a fair and legitimate election in Ukraine during the active phase of the war.

“Elections and a full-scale war are incompatible,” the statement said. “This idea is extremely dangerous and will lead to the loss of legitimacy of both the (electoral) process and the elected bodies, with a high probability of a significant destabilisation of the state as a whole.”

Logistical nightmare and financial obstacles 

Those who argue that other democracies managed to hold elections during wartime often point to the US example during World War Two. The Ukrainians insist the comparison makes little sense. The US fought the war not on its territory and was much better placed to muster logistical and financial resources to enable its military personnel to cast their votes.

But even if special polling stations were set up for soldiers on the battlefront – itself a major endeavour that could disrupt military operations of the hard-pressed Ukrainian army – the real challenge would be to ensure voting rights to externally and internally displaced persons.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, there are 14 million displaced people in Ukraine – almost a third of the country’s pre-war population. Around 6 million have been forced to move to other regions of Ukraine, while almost 8 million have gone abroad.

Until the situation in the country stabilises, internally displaced persons and refugees will not be able to decide on their place of residence and, accordingly, their place of voting. It would take an enormous effort by the cash-strapped government to organise polling stations on a larger scale abroad and to ensure that voting would be safeguarded from irregularities.

Even updating voting registers to account for the number of displaced persons is a logistical impossibility for the already stretched-out civil administration. The risk of voting centres or regional electoral commissions coming under fire from Russian bombing cannot be dismissed either.

Financial considerations may not be the most important factor, but they should not be ignored either. The Ukrainian Central Election Commission estimates that $248 million is needed for the presidential and parliamentary elections in 2024, and that does not include the potential cost of setting up hundreds of polling stations for Ukrainian refugees abroad.

Zelenskyy, Ukraine’s fund-raiser-in-chief, says spending money on elections is no waste but that the money would be better used to purchase materiel for the troops. He made the point in his typically blunt style to Senator Graham during their talks in Kyiv.

“Sorry, I will not hold elections on credit. I will not divert money from weapons supply to finance the elections,” he said he told Graham. “Unless the United States and Europe want to pay for it.”


Published as part of our Future of Ukraine Fellowship programme. Learn more about it here and consider contributing.

The featured image comes from the Presidential Office of Ukraine. All materials featured on this site are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International.


Aleksandra Klitina

Future of Ukraine Fellow

Aleksandra Klitina is a Future of Ukraine Fellow as well as a Senior Correspondent for Kyiv Post, with over a decade of experience in private and public institutions, including serving as a former Deputy Minister in Ukraine’s Ministry of Infrastructure. She has a background in advocating infrastructure and public administration reforms and has worked on EU projects in Ukraine.

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