To News and Stories
In wartime Explainers

Not sacrificing democracy: why Ukraine cannot hold elections under the martial law

You may not know this, but Ukrainians do love their elections. 18-year-old citizens receive congratulations from their families when they go to the polls for the first time. Young children accompany their parents to watch as they cast their votes for the chosen candidates. And Ukrainians love their election fair: people are ready to protest rigged results – like in the 2004 Orange Revolution.

Participants of the Orange Revolution on Independence Square in Kyiv. November 2004.
Photo: Istorychna Pravda

Ukraine is a democratic state, and all of its achievements in recent years of independence have resulted from democratic transformations desired by its citizens. Russia’s war against Ukraine hinders the democratic process and creates many risks for Ukrainians.

Ukrainians do value their democracy and will never abandon it. However, this is another aspect of everyday life and the normal democratic process that Russia is trying to deprive Ukraine of.

When is the next Ukrainian election?

The next parliamentary elections were due in October 2023, and the presidential elections should have been planned for spring 2024. This fact remains incompatible with Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

The Ukrainian Constitution directly prohibits holding any elections under martial law. And even if it did allow them, there are dozens of unsolvable practical and security issues rendering it literally impossible to ensure a fair electoral process in the circumstances of a total war.

As of February 2023, аlmost 18% of Ukraine’s territory is under temporary Russian occupation, and millions of citizens have been forced to flee abroad. Hundreds of thousands more Ukrainians are currently defending the country at the frontlines. In addition, Russia continues the daily bombardment of civilian infrastructure across Ukrainian territory.

Ukrainians are well known to the world for their longing for freedom and independence. The love of democracy is a hallmark of the Ukrainian people, who do not hesitate to demonstrate it when someone infringes on their rights.

However, most Ukrainians support the decision to postpone the elections.
In the autumn of 2023, the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology surveyed Ukrainians on the feasibility of holding elections in Ukraine according to their schedule. 81% of respondents voted that “elections should be held after the war.”

(Semi)Democratic elections

For an election to be democratic, as many people as possible must participate. In particular, citizens have the right to run for elections. However, this is not entirely possible, given Russia’s full-scale invasion.

The first and obvious factor is that most people will not be physically able to join the elections. First of all, we are talking about the military. As mentioned, about 700 thousand Ukrainians currently serve in the Armed Forces, and most are taking part in combat operations.

In addition to the fact that it is almost impossible to provide the necessary conditions for voting on the frontlines, Ukrainian soldiers will not be able to run as candidates, which again violates their civil rights. And it is essential for people who risk their lives and health to have a say in the country’s future. 

The counteroffensive of the Armed Forces of Ukraine near Bakhmut. The air at this moment is filled with the sounds of the battle. Bakhmut. May 11, 2023. Photo: Serhii Nuzhnenko (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty)

The second group that would hardly be able to vote is Ukrainians who fled from the war abroad. According to a study by the Civil Network OPORA, as of July 2023, more than 8 million Ukrainians have left the country since the start of the full-scale invasion on February 24, 2022 – almost 20% of the total population.

The existing polling stations abroad will not be able to accommodate such a huge number of Ukrainians. For example, in Poland, four polling stations were available for the 2018 elections: the Embassy of Ukraine in Poland, the Consulate General of Ukraine in Poland, the Consulate General of Ukraine in Lublin, and the Consulate of Ukraine in Gdansk. Now, they would have almost 300,000 voters each. 

Holding elections under such conditions requires sufficient infrastructure, which does not exist. Even if the number of polling stations is increased, for many, they still would be hours away. 

The third group is the citizens of Ukraine, who still live in regions under temporary Russian occupation. Russia is completely depriving them of the right to vote and to choose. And this will not end until the territories of Ukraine are liberated.

Elections are always costly, and now they are also unsafe

Another substantial argument is security. It cannot be guaranteed to voters, especially those close to the frontline. Although, given Russia’s terrorist practice of striking public infrastructure and civilians, the danger exists not only in frontline areas but also in other cities of Ukraine, which are also frequently attacked. Having large crowds of people in pre-announced places is a huge security risk, and that, unfortunately, has been proven by the terrorist state on more than one occasion.

In addition, Ukrainian elections always include international observers who help raise voter confidence and evaluate the legitimacy of an electoral process. Today, Ukraine would have to request those international representatives to stay at polling stations, which may become a target for Russian drone and missile attacks, especially close to the frontline.

The financial aspect is another reason not to dismiss. In 2019, about UAH 2 billion was spent from the state budget for the parliamentary elections and UAH 2.3 billion for the presidential elections. Such budget spending will now reduce spending on areas currently key to preserving Ukraine as a state – the army and defense.

In addition, most Ukrainians who lost their homes as a result of the war or were seriously injured, as well as children who were orphaned, need social assistance. Ukraine’s budget is currently intended to meet the priority needs of Ukraine and its citizens who suffer from Russia’s crimes.

What does the Constitution say about it?

The Constitution of Ukraine prohibits holding elections to the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine under martial law.

“According to Article 83 of the Constitution, parliamentary elections cannot be held during martial law. This article is interpreted in different ways, but in my opinion, it is straightforward and says clearly that the powers of the parliament, which operates during martial law, cannot be terminated. Accordingly, there can be no elections if the legislative branch’s powers cannot be suspended during martial law”, says Olha Aivazovska, Head of the Board of the Civil Network OPORA.

In simple terms, elections can only be held unless changes to Ukraine’s primary law are adopted, which is also impossible under martial law following Article 157 of the Constitution. Ukrainian legislation also prohibits the termination of the powers of state authorities (the President, the Verkhovna Rada, the Cabinet of Ministers, the National Bank, and some others) under martial law.

In addition, even a change in Ukrainian legislation would not solve the problem of security, financial, and legal factors that complicate the organization of elections in Ukraine during the full-scale war.

Misinformation on legitimacy

According to the Constitution of Ukraine, citizens elect the president for five years. However, he or she remains a legitimate head of the state and must fulfill their duties until a new candidate, elected by the people, takes office. This is a fundamental rule of public administration – the continuity of state power.

The law lists cases when the president’s powers might be terminated earlier: in the event of resignation, inability to perform his duties due to health reasons, impeachment, or death. The fact that five years have passed since the election does not automatically strip the current president of their powers or duties: Ukrainian legislation does not encourage the possibility for this post to remain empty.

Volodymyr Zelenskyy takes the oath of office as President of Ukraine. May 20, 2019.
Photo: Office of the President of Ukraine

Even though Volodymyr Zelenskyy was elected as president of Ukraine in the spring of 2019, he will remain a legitimate President of Ukraine even past the five-year mark. He would not have to, if Ukrainians could have the next presidential elections as planned, in spring 2024. But, once again, they are impossible under martial law with Russia’s full-scale invasion ongoing – and any manipulation of the topic of legitimacy only repeats Russia’s destructive propaganda on the issue.

Currently, Ukraine, which is fighting for its freedom and democracy against the aggressor at the frontlines, needs unity. The Ukrainian government and its citizens have never abandoned democratic values and elections, but only if every Ukrainian can fulfill their right to vote in full: on liberated territory, without missiles overhead, and within their own country they can return to after the victory. 

The only obstacle to Ukraine’s democratic path is Russia and its imperialist efforts. Consolidated resistance to Russian aggression is an excellent way to restore justice and support democratic values, bringing the next elections in peaceful Ukraine closer.