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Ukraine’s democracy is facing a wartime election test

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Russia and Ukraine are both supposed to hold presidential elections next March. Autocratic Russia will go ahead. But for democratic Ukraine, under constant threat of Russian attack and constrained by martial law, it is a lot more complicated. Parliamentary elections due next month have already, in effect, been cancelled.

The prospect of a long war poses a difficult conundrum for Ukraine: how long can it wait before renewing the mandates of its leaders? Should it prove its democratic credentials by holding presidential and parliamentary elections, despite the security, logistical and legal impediments? Some western politicians think so.

“If you don’t do it, then the question comes from the table: what did we defend in this war of aggression that Russia has called against us?” Tiny Kox, the Dutchman who leads the parliamentary assembly of the Council of Europe, told Ukrainian Truth, a news outlet, earlier this year.

After a visit to Kyiv last month, US senator Lindsey Graham said he couldn’t think of “a better symbol for Ukraine than to hold free and fair elections during the course of a war”.

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has pointed to all the obstacles: elections are not allowed under martial law; 5mn Ukrainians are internally displaced and living outside their constituencies; and several million more are abroad where they are only allowed to vote in embassies. How do you organise voting for soldiers at the frontline and how do you stop Russian missiles from targeting polling stations?

“I see no room for elections in the upcoming future,” says Serhiy Leshchenko, an adviser to the Office of the President.

Still, Zelenskyy has left the door ajar. His response to Graham was the US and Europe would have to pay for elections because Ukraine needs every penny for the army. “We are ready. There is no question about it,” the president intriguingly told a conference in Kyiv earlier this month.

Zelenskyy’s ambiguity has alarmed Ukrainian civil society groups. Having worked for years to entrench democracy, campaigners are now in the unusual position of arguing against elections as long as Ukraine is in a full-scale war with Russia.

“This idea is extremely dangerous and will lead to the loss of legitimacy of both the process and the elected bodies and — with a high probability — to significant destabilisation of the state as a whole,” over 100 NGOs wrote in a joint statement on Monday.

On top of the organisational difficulties, they argue that martial law has stifled the free speech and debate necessary for a legitimate democratic contest. The government and parliament should instead start preparing the country for postwar elections, which will be no mean feat.

Leshchenko said it was Zelenskyy’s opponents who, craving political oxygen — there is no government of national unity in Ukraine — were the ones clamouring for a vote.

But some pro-democracy activists believe members of the president’s office and of his political party see an opportunity next spring to capitalise on Zelenskyy’s sky-high popularity — and lack of presidential rivals. An EU decision to start membership negotiations with Ukraine in December, the delivery of F-16 fighter jets later in the winter and further gains on the battlefield would give him a further lift.

A brief suspension of martial law, approved by a friendly constitutional court, could allow for simultaneous presidential and parliamentary elections, maximising the benefits for Zelenskyy but eroding the checks and balances on the head of state.

“We may have elections but without competition this could break Ukraine’s growth as an electoral democracy,” says Olha Ajvazovska, the head of Opora, an activist group.

But Zelenskyy knows the longer he waits, the worse its gets politically, says Marcin Walecki of the National Democratic Institute, a US and UK backed NGO. Polls show many Ukrainians want a clear-out of existing political parties and a bigger role for former soldiers in political life. The armed forces are the most trusted institution in Ukraine and Valery Zaluzhny, the top general, is even more popular than Zelensky.

The president’s wartime leadership has turned him into a Churchillian figure. But being turfed out of office by an electorate more interested in rebuilding their lives and their country than heroism is a Churchillian parallel he will want to avoid.

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