Had it not been for Russia’s full-scale war, Ukrainians would have engaged in a heated political season in the lead-up to the parliamentary elections on Oct. 29, as well as the presidential elections in March of the upcoming year.
Despite some voices in the West pushing for Ukraine’s elections to occur as planned, elections and war are incompatible. Yes, elections are a vital prerequisite for democracy, and we agree on that. However, with millions of Ukrainians fleeing the war abroad and thousands at the front line, elections in Ukraine before the war ends will not be free and fair. Such elections would blatantly violate the Constitution, make polling stations an easy target for Russian rockets, and bleed Ukraine’s budget dry.
Ukraine’s civil society has fought hard against electoral fraud and authoritarianism through democratic reforms over the years. Our citizens are now the backbone of Ukraine’s incredible resistance to Russia’s invasion. Having fearlessly sacrificed their lives to safeguard their country and democracy, Ukrainians overwhelmingly support the idea of having elections only after the war, even if this means waiting even longer. And what they are saying can’t be ignored.
Elections are forbidden in Ukraine under martial law. Ukraine’s constitution prohibits elections during martial law, which was implemented at the start of Russia’s full-scale war in February 2022. It is prohibited to terminate lawmakers’ terms, and the parliament’s authority is thereby extended until a new assembly is elected after martial law ends. This also applies to the president, whose powers are extended. For elections to take place, the constitution would have to be amended, or martial law be lifted.
Ukraine would face insurmountable operational difficulties. As of June, over 20% of Ukraine’s territory is occupied by Russia. Another 20% is surrounded by heavy fighting, and other parts of the country endure frequent missile and drone attacks. With air raid sirens sounding across different regions on a daily basis, the electoral process would be interrupted – not to mention dangerous. Around 8 million people fled abroad after the full-scale war started, and they would also need to vote, which could turn problematic as Ukraine’s embassies and consulates abroad have limited capacities. Another 5 to 12 million became internally displaced persons within Ukraine, and Kyiv would also need to provide facilities and make a comprehensive campaign on how they could vote.
Elections will cost a lot amid Russia’s war. The costs associated with holding elections amid the destruction and chaos caused by Russia’s war are unjustified when Ukraine continues to fight for its mere existence. Kyiv would have to coordinate funds to rebuild destroyed infrastructure, organize voting for the millions displaced abroad, and ensure the security of polling stations. Ukraine critically needs these funds to go toward the war effort.
Elections could undermine national unity. Political competition is critical to democratic processes during peacetime but, during the war, political discord could lead to instability and national disunity. This period would also give Russian disinformation wider grounds to operate, allowing Moscow to distort the reality in Ukraine and international support for Ukraine.
Elections are the cornerstone, but not a guarantee, of democracy. Elections are critical to a functioning democracy, but the process must be free and fair and allow for political expression and healthy competition. Simply holding elections without ensuring the protection of these elements, like in Russia or Belarus, defeats the purpose. Martial law restricts several rights and freedoms, but elections require expanding and protecting them. Political battles are left for later, as Ukrainians are vocal about where our priorities and joint interests lie: surviving and winning the war. In addition, elections not deemed free and fair will undermine democracy and play into Russia’s hands.
For the sake of Ukraine’s democracy, we should not push for elections during the war. Instead, the parliament should start to address the urgent challenges that will come with post-war elections and prepare the relevant legislation for their success. This is the only way that Ukraine can reaffirm its deep commitment to democracy while retaining legitimacy, political stability, and national unity.
Editor's Note: The opinions expressed in the op-ed section are those of the authors and do not purport to reflect the views of the Kyiv Independent.