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The holding of presidential elections in Ukraine on the standard date of March 2024 is hindered by a number of problems connected with the war, the end of which is not in sight.
However, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy did not rule them out and stated that, for example, with the help of the EU and the US, which would protect their transparency, elections are possible, even though their holding would be extremely difficult.
The Ukrainian president is in a difficult situation. For him, the elections are on the one hand a logistical nightmare and a personal risk. But paradoxically, his power may be threatened by the very fact that he will continue to rule without them.
Unlikely, but possible
Analysts agree that the more likely scenario is the continuation of martial law and the postponement of elections.
Since the war is unlikely to end until the spring, it is unlikely that martial law will be lifted in Ukraine. However, after amending the electoral law, the elections could still be held.
“People understand that it would be problematic. According to polls, the majority of the public is against the elections, the opposition is not ready for it either, and the professional community clearly agrees on postponing the elections. There was even a petition against it by respected non-governmental organizations, in which a hundred experts spoke out against holding elections during the war,” Popov told Seznam Zprávám.
With exaggeration, he added that the only ones who want warlike elections in Ukraine are US Senator Lindsey Graham, who called on Zelensky to hold elections, and the Kremlin.
Postponing the elections is a more likely option, according to Ruslan Bortnik, political scientist and director of the Ukrainian Institute of Politics. According to him, the political factors that play against the elections are simply much stronger than the pressures exerted on the government to strive for the elections to be held on time.
In a recently published interview with Seznam Zpráv, analyst Orysia Lutsevych from the British think tank Chatham House called the holding of elections unlikely until the state of war ends.
Nevertheless, Popov and Bortnik agree that neither option is good for Zelensky. The Ukrainian president has to choose the lesser evil, which, after all, may also be the reason why he is procrastinating with a definitive opinion on the elections.
A logistical nightmare
The most obvious reason why wartime elections in Ukraine are problematic is logistical.
After all, Zelenskyi also draws attention to this, who mentioned, for example, the obstacle in the form of the impossibility of ensuring the possibility to vote for Ukrainians living in the territory occupied by Russia, ensuring the security of the entire process and its financial demands.
But there are many more problems.
It would be difficult, for example, to ensure voting for soldiers fighting at the front and refugees abroad. “During the 2019 elections abroad, 50,000 people voted at diplomatic offices of Ukraine around the world. Now there are millions of them scattered across Europe,” Popov pointed out.
According to him, this means that if Ukraine did not want to deny the right to vote to these people, it would have to switch to postal or online elections, which, according to him, is perceived as a controversial method of elections in Ukraine, and the opposition is also against it.
“I can’t imagine that we would be allowed to open, say, a hundred polling stations across the country in European countries, and perhaps even in your country in the Czech Republic. Who would take responsibility for all security and organizational problems?” Popov described the unreality of the standard election process abroad.
Bortnik reminded that another strong factor against the holding of elections is the fear of Russian attempts to disrupt them not only with physical attacks, but also with information warfare. However, according to Bortnik, purely personal political motivations can also discourage Zelenský from supporting the calling of elections in the standard term.
According to Bortnik, Zelenskyj would first of all risk losing the election, which is more likely to happen in the parliamentary elections. Even those would have to happen if the president were to be elected. Their due date is already in October this year.
According to Bortnik, another reason why the elections might not be good for Zelensky is the need to amend the laws, which would deprive the Zelensky government of the opportunity to control media and political activities in the country.
Why hasn’t Zelenskyy called the election yet?
So why does Zelenskyy say that the possibility of holding elections is open? And why might he really want to do them in the spring?
In part, according to Bortnik, it may be purely an attempt to ventilate the commitment to democracy. “Zelenskyy does not usurp power, he is not an authoritarian leader and he is ready to go to the elections as soon as the conditions allow. In a situation where we have already canceled parliamentary elections and government officials are talking about the impossibility of holding elections before the end of the war, something like this is important,” said the political scientist. According to him, with his statements, Zelensky tames all those who call for the need to hold elections.
In addition, according to Bortnik, maintaining the possibility of elections in the spring of 2024 gives Zelenskyi’s team an ideal opportunity to observe the reactions of the Ukrainian opposition. “They are closely monitoring who is preparing for the elections and how, who is sponsoring them, what media is supporting them and so on,” he said.
The main motivation for taking steps to hold elections is, of course, the chance for Zelensky to win, which would bring him new credibility and relieve him of potential accusations of authoritarianism, and, according to Bortnik, would also allow him a “free hand” in case he decides to do something in the future unpopular steps with the public.
“On the one hand, Zelenskyy does not want to hold bad elections. On the other hand, he does not want a political crisis to occur due to the fact that, for example, a higher number of deputies will start questioning the legitimacy of his mandate,” Popov pointed out the same problem.
“Our constitution states that the parliament and the president are elected for five years. If Parliament completes the five-year period while martial law is in effect, the period is automatically extended. But we don’t have it strictly written in the constitution for the president,” said Popov.
According to Popov, this legislative vacuum and the question of the legitimacy of Zelensky remaining in office even after the end of his five-year mandate are not yet the subject of public discussion. However, it is not excluded that someone from the opposition “could play this card” in the future, which could end up in a dispute at the Constitutional Court or even a parliamentary crisis.
Zelenskyy has no clear rivals yet
Polls show that Zelensky’s popularity increased significantly after the Russian invasion, and at the beginning of this year over 90% of the Ukrainian population approved or “more or less” approved of his actions.
However, both Popov and Bortnik point out that the informative value of these surveys for possible elections may not be high. According to Popov, many people do not want to deal with political ratings during the war at all and postpone politics until after the war. Bortnik, on the other hand, points out that the percentage of the population who, according to surveys, trusts the president can be significantly different from how many people would otherwise be. willing to vote.
According to Popov, Zelenskyi is nevertheless the most popular politician. According to Popov, the second most popular person who could theoretically be Zelenskyi’s opponent is Valery Zaluzhny, the chief of the Ukrainian General Staff. But he is not a political rival, at least for now.
“The army is separate from politics, and military officials cannot stand for election. Moreover, when we have a war, it would be really strange if the commander-in-chief of the army went into a duel with the president,” said Popov.
According to Bortnik, it cannot be said that Zelensky could be sure of an easy victory in the presidential elections, and losing is a real risk for him. According to him, however, the future development of the war will primarily decide the possible opponent and his chances.