Ukraine war: Fierce row erupts over 2024 election

Zelensky voting in 2019
Image caption,Volodymyr Zelensky was elected as Ukraine’s president in 2019

By Abdujalil Abdurasulov

BBC News, Kyiv

How can you hold elections in a war?

For months, Ukraine has been caught up in a heated debate over whether the country needs to hold a presidential election in March next year as originally scheduled.

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

Many in Ukraine are outraged by the idea, fearing a 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 seems to be far from over, and has fuelled a political confrontation unseen in the country since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion.

One of the big driving forces for the row though lies not in Ukraine, but the US.

US party politics

The discussion about Ukrainian elections is partly being pushed by US politicians ahead of the country’s election in 2024, particularly by a small group within the Republican party, says Olha Aivazovska, chairwoman of the election monitoring network Opora.

She argues that some hard-right 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 greater influence in the Republican party, the issue of support for Ukraine gets caught up in US domestic politics and party divisions.

Although many Republicans support Ukraine, “it doesn’t mean that the far-right wing of this party will not use this topic against Ukraine next year [during] the presidential elections in the US,” Ms Aivazovska says.

They are already doing it. Earlier this month, Vivek Ramaswamy, one of the Republican candidates for the presidential nomination, claimed that Ukraine “is not a paragon of democracy” and is “threatening not to hold elections this year unless the US forks over more money”.

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

Lindsey Graham in Kyiv, May 2023
Image caption,Senator Lindsey Graham, an important voice in the Republican party, has made several trips to Ukraine

And President Zelensky understands that he needs to address this growing rhetoric coming from the US: the country is Ukraine’s main ally, and its military aid is vital for fighting off Russia’s invasion.

“There are a few things that can split US support [for Ukraine],” Mr Zelensky said in an interview to Ukrainian TV last August. “One of them is the elections, since, as far as I know, there are voices [against continuing support] within the Republican party.”

Until recently, Mr Zelensky hasn’t rejected the elections outright. He listed all the challenges – such as security, legislation, and funding – and added that he was “ready” and would run for a second term if the elections take place in a time of war.

In a more recent interview to Ukrainian TV, Mr Zelensky stated that he “would like [to hold elections] within a year or whenever it’s required.”

Earlier this month Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba stated that Mr Zelensky was “weighing different pros and cons” of having elections in war time.

Domestic backlash

Even if martial law is changed to allow elections, there are many obstacles to holding a vote.

Security is the main one. A displaced population is another.

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

“[It’s impossible to hold elections] when we can’t guarantee security to our citizens, when our soldiers… cannot vote or be nominated as candidates.”

A Ukrainian refugee child hugging her mother
Image caption,Millions of Ukrainians have fled their homes and are abroad or scattered across their country

Other challenges include schools – which are normally used as polling stations – being damaged, an outdated voter registry, restricted rights under martial law and a lack of funding.

Experts agree that under the current circumstances, holding free and fair elections with a competitive political process is just not possible.

It’s not surprising then that the idea of having presidential elections is deeply unpopular in Ukraine. A survey conducted by Kyiv’s International Institute of Sociology in November showed that more than 80% of respondents wanted to have elections only after the war has ended.

MPs from both opposition and ruling parties repeatedly claim that it’s wrong to hold elections next year.

But President Zelensky’s ambiguous statements about the possibility of holding elections has sparked a domestic backlash.

Opposition MPs and media started reporting that the authorities were preparing to hold presidential elections in 2024. Some politicians even announced plans to run for the presidency.

Speculation grew that President Zelensky’s popularity was going to decline because of the stalemate on the front line, and that therefore he wanted to hold the elections in 2024 as planned while his poll ratings were still high.

Volodymyr Zelensky at a press conference in Brussels, October 2023
Image caption,President Zelensky has told Ukraine that now is “not the right time for elections”

In a bid to quash the rumours, the president made a televised address in early November and said that “it is not the right time for elections”.

“We must decide that now is the time of defence, the time of battle, on which the fate of the state and people depends,” he said.

When will Ukraine have elections?

Alina Zagoruyko, an MP and the head of the parliamentary sub-committee on elections and referendums, argues that Volodymyr Zelensky will remain as a legitimate president even after his term expires next spring.

Article 108 of Ukraine’s constitution states that the incumbent head of state performs his or her duties until a newly elected president assumes office.

But if the war drags on for much longer, then at some point “it may be a problem and we may need to explore possibilities of holding elections even in such conditions,” Ms Zagoruyko said.

Most politicians and experts agree though that they need to start preparing for the post-war elections now.

Many villages and towns like Bakhmut or Avdiivka are in ruins. Most of their population is either dead or scattered around the country and beyond. Election infrastructure is destroyed. Holding elections in those areas will be extremely challenging even in peace time.

A destroyed school in Kharkiv
Image caption,Russian forces have destroyed infrastructure across Ukraine – including school buildings, where voting usually takes place

Another issue is the voters. Out of eight million Ukrainian refugees, many are unlikely to return back home quickly even after the war is over.

So the authorities must agree with foreign governments to expand polling stations abroad, says Olena Shulyak.

“We need to discuss alternative ways of voting, such as postal voting or online. All these things require changes to legislation.”

But MPs are reluctant to discuss these issues because such events are seen as preparing for war-time elections. Citizens immediately accuse these politicians of betraying the country. As the progress on the front line has effectively stalled, the fear of losing national unity grows stronger.

Most Ukrainian parties and political groups seem to agree that they cannot afford to plunge back into peace-time political bickering while they are still fighting Russia.

But the longer the war drags on, the harder it will be to maintain this consensus, partly because of domestic politics in Ukraine’s Western partners.

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