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April Brief: Ukraine’s Presidential Elections - The Workings of a Post-Soviet Democracy

Ukraine prides itself as a post-Soviet democracy. However, to what degree is the lack of upcoming elections a constitutional limitation or an excuse for democratic backsliding?

April Brief: Ukraine’s Presidential Elections - The Workings of a Post-Soviet Democracy

Montag, 12. Februar 2024

Ukraine’s Presidential Elections - The Workings of a Post-Soviet Democracy

This brief was updated on April 20, 03:33 UTC


Since becoming a democracy in 1991, Ukraine has had a number of instances of civil unrest: the Orange Revolution of 2004-2005, the Euromaidan Protests beginning in 2013, the subsequent Revolution of Dignity, and Russia’s 2014 annexation of the Crimean Peninsula. Further instability was brought to the country through controversial laws such as a language law adopted in 2019 which deprives the Russian language and its speakers of the protection against discrimination other languages are receiving.

 

Despite the aforementioned periods of political tension and challenges, presidential elections in Ukraine have always gone ahead as planned every 5 years. That was until the 2022 Russian invasion, whereby martial law was introduced, thus canceling the elections planned for 2024.

 

Before the start of the war, Ukraine was considered a Hybrid Regime with a score of 5.42 according to the Economist Democracy Index (0 being authoritarian regimes, 10 being full democracies). The outbreak of the full-scale war and the full exercise of martial law resulted in Ukraine scoring a 5.06 in 2023 ranking, dropping four places in the ranking. This information, combined with the fact that elections were postponed, may make one suspicious as to whether this indicates democratic backsliding in Ukraine, or if certain tradeoffs are inevitable in times of national security crises.

 

Lack of a Presidential Election: Security-Liberty Tradeoff or Democratic Backsliding?

Due to the ongoing military conflict in Ukraine and the continuance of the state of martial law, the presidential elections which were scheduled for this year have been suspended until further notice. This poses a dilemma in the war-torn country due to its potential to compromise democracy in Ukraine. According to a February-March 2024 poll  by SOCIS, a Kyiv-based political sociology company, if the elections were to be held as planned, the incumbent president Volodymyr Zelensky would only get 21.1% of the votes while Valerii Zaluzhnyi, the former Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine would get a total of 46.4% of the votes. It is important to note that this poll only dealt with hypothetical candidates in a presidential election.

 

The legality of holding elections has caused a major debate among lawyers. Whilst by the election legislation, there cannot be any elections held during martial law, the constitution sheds a different light on the topic. According to the Ukrainian constitution, parliamentary elections cannot be held during a state of martial law, whilst it does not state anything about presidential elections, which could potentially take place if certain laws were to be changed. Additionally, several Western officials have pressed Ukraine to hold elections despite being in a state of war.

 

Concerns on democratic backsliding lie on the rivalry between Zelensky and Zaluzhnyi. There was a known power struggle in Kyiv between the president and his former Commander-in-Chief. Zaluzhnyi is credited by many as having saved Ukraine in the early days of the invasion. Initially, Zelensky gave his generals autonomy in creating battlefield strategy. However, as the war progressed, Zelensky intervened more in crafting battlefield strategies, and his visions increasingly clashed with Zaluzhnyi’s. Zelensky dismissed Zaluzhnyi in February 2024. Given Zelensky’s desire to win a second-term and Zaluzhnyi’s popularity in opinion polls, one has to wonder if Zelensky’s dismissal of the general and inaction in confirming a new election date is also a political act by Zelensky to try to derail a potential political opponent.

 

However, the cancellation of elections may not necessarily indicate democratic backsliding. There are a variety of challenges with holding national elections aside from the fact that the country is at war. Five million Ukrainians are internally displaced, and a further several million are abroad where they are only allowed to vote in embassies. This creates a wide array of logistical problems for organizing an election. Furthermore, any country is faced with the security-liberty tradeoff. To ensure security, some freedoms might be legitimately curtailed. This dilemma is especially pronounced in war-torn countries like Ukraine. Sometimes, in order to keep a country safe, certain liberties need to be limited, and this is what the Ukrainian government argues in response to critics of not holding elections.

 

Paraphrasing, this report finds Ukraine is facing a ubiquitous situation. The legal grounds on whether a presidential election is permissive remain unclear. Moreover, some critics claim Zelensky might fear losing the elections. On the other hand, the observer must also take into account the realities of war. Millions of Ukrainians are displaced, giving rise to unprecedented logistical problems in coordinating the election. Furthermore, in a battle for its survival, certain limitations to individual freedoms might be inevitable. Consequently, a clear judgment on the reasons behind the cancellations of the presidential elections remain unclear. It might only be in hindsight that the motives of Zelensky will elucidate.


EPIS does not take institutional positions on public policy issues. The views presented in this article are those of the authors and do not represent the views of EPIS Think Tank.

Authors

Alexander Sascha Zell

Alexander Sascha Zell

Niklas Spilker

Niklas Spilker

Eurasia

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