Voting in the middle of the Russian invasion is legally and practically unworkable.
Concern over the decision to postpone Ukraine’s elections has come from both Ukraine’s friends and foes. In а June 27 podcast episode, former Fox news pundit Tucker Carlson said sarcastically that “democracy in Ukraine seems to be suspended by the world’s foremost democracy advocate himself—field marshal [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelensky.”
On the other hand, PACE President Tiny Kox said that while he recognizes the enormity of the struggle Ukraine faces, the country must uphold its obligations under international agreements to hold elections. “It is up to [Ukraine] how to solve this challenge,” he told a Council of Europe summit in May, adding that “there will be no complaints against Ukraine if the elections are not ideal. But if you do not hold elections, then everyone will have questions about you … without elections, democracy is impossible.”
Whether objections to the postponement of Ukraine’s elections come from a place of hostility or sympathy, they fail to understand that voting during this war would be legally, practically, and institutionally impossible. Ukraine is under martial law, with constant threat of Russian bombs and many of its people displaced. Postponing elections was not a function of any fear on Zelensky’s part, since his approval ratings have soared during wartime. A country under a full-scale invasion and occupation is simply in no position to vote.
Ukraine’s next elections for deputies of the Verkhovna Rada (the Ukrainian parliament) were originally scheduled to be held on Oct. 29, 2023. Campaigning was to begin 60 days prior, meaning that rules would have had to be finalized by next month for the candidates to prepare their campaigns on time. If not for the war, Zelensky’s turn at the ballot box would have come in March 2024.
These regularly scheduled elections were disrupted by the state of martial law declared in 2022, at the start of the full-scale Russian invasion. This can be expected from a country fighting for its very existence, where significant portions of its territory are occupied. Martial law is established as a concept in the Ukrainian Constitution and last updated by the national legislature in 2015, before Zelensky entered politics.
Article 83 of the Ukrainian Constitution states that if the term of the Verkhovna Rada expires under martial law, it shall automatically be extended until a new Rada is seated following the end of martial law. Article 19 of Ukraine’s martial law legislation specifically forbids conducting national elections. Thus, for Ukraine to conduct elections while under martial law would be a violation of legal norms that predate Zelensky and the full-scale Russian invasion.
Kox acknowledged this in a subsequent conversation with Olha Aivazovska, the head of Ukraine’s top election watchdog, stating that “it is clear that [Ukraine’s] constitution does not allow you to organize elections when martial law is applicable.”
However, even beyond the legal issues, there are practical obstacles that would simply be impossible to overcome.
The most glaring is the fact that Ukraine is fighting a war in which the entirety of the country is subject to Russian attack at any moment. Nationwide air raid alerts are a very common occurrence and can last anywhere from 20 minutes to many hours. The writing of this very article was disrupted by a Russian missile salvo on Lviv, which killed 10 people (as of this writing) and rocked the authors’ windows. The disruptions from air raids would make reliable voting, counting, and tabulation across the country simply impossible.
Ukraine has a system of robust procedures to ensure the integrity of the voting process. All ballot boxes must be visible by observers and members of the precinct electoral committee at all times so that no stuffing of ballots or other malfeasance can take place. Similarly, the counting of ballots must occur in a single sitting in sight of all observers and committee members. How can constant oversight of ballots, voter lists, and other important documents be maintained as everyone shuffles off to the bomb shelter? How can security be maintained when everybody in the voting hall and lined up outside needs to crowd into the limited shelter space?
The ongoing bombing also makes it impractical to ensure that every Ukrainian has an equal opportunity to vote. Ukraine cannot provide fair access to the ballot when the act of going to cast one’s ballot carries varying levels of risk across the country. Harder-hit areas may not even be able to hold elections directly after martial law ends because of issues of safety (including the prevalence of mines), access (such as destruction of polling locations), and disruptions to key electoral resources (such as outdated voter lists and mass amounts of displaced persons, including the aunties and grannies who make Ukraine’s elections function).
Russia would likely find it advantageous to target polling sites across the country for bombing in order to maximize political chaos in Ukraine, just as the Taliban attempted during elections in Afghanistan (which Russia could do with far more potent effect). The unpredictable violence inherent in everyday Ukrainian life is simply incompatible with a fair, open, and safe election.
Even if the Ukrainian government were to ignore the safety and security risks, it would be impossible to establish a sufficient democratic mandate in such conditions. The mass displacement of Ukrainians across the country, continent, and world (to say nothing of those under Russian occupation) would make such an exercise as futile as Russia’s attempt to capture Kyiv.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Ukraine has seen nearly 14 million people displaced—nearly a third of the country’s entire prewar population. About 6 million of those have been displaced to other areas of Ukraine (as internally displaced people, or IDPs), while nearly 8 million have fled abroad as refugees. This is the largest displacement of people since World War II.
Ukraine’s State Voter Registry (SVR) has not been updated since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion, and while the Verkhovna Rada has a working group looking at restoring the SVR, its recommendations are not expected until autumn 2023.
While Ukraine has worked to ensure that those displaced from Russia’s earlier aggression had fair access to the ballot, these systems were never designed to handle the sheer number of currently displaced people. Before the 2019 national elections, around 1.5 million Ukrainians were registered as IDPs. That number has nearly quadrupled. And at the same time, there were only a little more than 550,000 Ukrainians registered abroad.
Laws for voting abroad stipulate that Ukrainian citizens must travel in person to a polling station (located at an embassy or consulate) to cast their ballot on election day. Not only would this require many Ukrainians to travel hundreds of kilometers in some countries, but it would completely overwhelm the capacity of the polling stations to count them. As Aivazovska explained to Foreign Policy in an interview, diplomatic facilities “don’t have the human or financial resources for [holding voting of this scale], nor do they have enough space for voting premises.” She said there will even need to be changes to the laws of countries where large numbers of Ukrainian voters will cast ballots in order to open new polling stations there.
A Verkhovna Rada working group is looking at how to update the voter registry, but it is not expected to be back with recommendations until August—when the parliamentary campaign was originally slated to begin. Aivazovska estimates that it would take a minimum of six months to update the SVR after it is reopened.
At present, Ukraine also has no system for absentee voting. Ukraine’s entire voting system relies on in-person ballot casting, even for people who are hospitalized (there are polling stations inside hospitals) or who are bedridden (polling workers bring ballots and a ballot box directly to the doors of those who cannot leave home). There is no current or planned capacity to organize large-scale mail-in or drop-off balloting in Ukraine.
With one in three Ukrainians now displaced and the SVR unable to be updated until well after the October 2023 parliamentary elections were scheduled, a wartime election would disenfranchise millions of Ukrainian voters, making any attempt to provide a legitimate democratic mandate futile.
If people are truly concerned about the Ukrainian government’s decision to postpone elections paving the way to a Zelensky dictatorship, it is worth asking whether this concern would be better addressed by holding elections on schedule. The truth is that if elections were held now, it is highly likely Zelensky and his Servant of the People party would win an ironclad mandate.
“In Ukraine, there is total trust and support of the pro-ruling party and the president,” political scientist Maksym Dzhigun told independent Ukrainian outlet Zaborona, citing a poll conducted by the Razumkov Center in February and March. Dzhigun added that almost every other party in the Rada had seen a decrease in support.
Zelensky’s party, which won the first absolute majority in the Verkhovna Rada in Ukraine’s history during a landslide victory in 2019, would almost certainly increase its majority during any elections held during wartime.
“It would actually be beneficial for the authorities to hold elections now because the percentage of support is now at a higher level than it was before the elections in 2019,” Dzhigun argues.
More than that, the process of campaigning would also be subjected to martial law-related security measures. Who would be the arbiter of what the parties or media can say? Zelensky, whose party would be running in the campaign? The National Security and Defense Council, which Zelensky heads? The Verkhovna Rada itself, in which Zelensky’s party already holds an absolute majority? These are additional issues being addressed by the Verkhovna Rada subcommittee on elections.
So, while Carlson and his like argue that Zelensky is using the war to give himself “absolute power,” in part by canceling elections, it seems clear that holding elections on schedule would allow the president to consolidate his political gains and entrench his power.
Instead of capitalizing on this opportunity with elections that could not realistically be carried out, Ukraine’s president has chosen to postpone the election of the parliament that will chart Ukraine’s postwar future to a point in which his political fortunes may or may not be better.
Aivazovska agrees with the Ukrainian government’s decision, explaining that “in the hot phase of the war … you cannot have fair and free elections when there are legal restrictions on rights and freedoms. These are mutually exclusive things.”
Ukraine would not be the first democracy to hold off on voting during a fight for its life. The United Kingdom postponed its parliamentary elections while battling for its survival against Nazi Germany, while Canada—despite not seeing wartime action on its own territory—postponed parliamentary elections during both World Wars. Nor is war a guarantee of electoral victory. The U.K.’s first postwar election was lost by Winston Churchill’s Conservatives despite the prime minister’s high popularity.
The reality is that free, fair, and safe elections are impossible to hold while Ukraine’s fight for its existence remains this hot. As Aivazovska argues, “elections cannot be held this year under any circumstances, so talking about October 2023 makes no sense at all.”
Original article: Foreign Policy
Lee Reaney is a journalist and editor in Lviv, Ukraine who has worked as a deputy supervisory returning officer for elections in Saskatchewan and observed seven Ukrainian elections, including as a long-term observer in 2019 and 2015. He studied Eastern European studies at Kyiv’s Shevchenko University and international conflict at the University of Saskatchewan.
Joel Wasserman is an analyst and editor in Lviv who served as a short-term observer for six elections around Ukraine in 2019 and 2020. He holds a BA in Russian and Eastern European studies from Tufts University.