Ukraine this year faces a new version of a recurrent problem: How can countries sustain and strengthen democracy amid war or upheaval? Ukraine is postponing parliamentary elections this year that election experts say would be dangerous to hold under Russia’s continued military assault. In such straits, how might any democracy, whether established or emerging, renew the accountability and representativity of its government? Ukrainian officials and civic leaders say the country has no perfect option, but can do it through a combination of reforms and commitments already underway.
Over decades, dozens of countries confronting civil warfare, COVID-19 or other upheavals have postponed elections after declaring them dangerous or logistically impossible to hold. Amid such crises, USIP and other experts have said, no blanket formula can be applied in meshing the goals of public safety, government accountability and the strengthening or renewal of democracy.
Where countries face elections amid upheaval, “there are often good reasons to postpone” a vote, former USIP elections expert Jonas Claes has written, noting recent years’ research showing a rising share of the world’s elections held in the face of violent conflict. Postponements are not necessarily a government’s excuse to hold onto power. “Every case needs to be determined on an individual basis,” Claes argued, and sound reasons may justify a delay. Similarly, where countries struggle to recover from coups d’etat, democracy advocates typically press for elections as quickly as possible, at times overlooking the critical need to ensure the quality of the transition and the resulting democracy, USIP’s Joseph Sany notes.
Ukraine’s election calendar would have held a vote for parliament members this week and a presidential election next March — but Ukraine’s constitution postpones elections under a state of martial law, which the government declared following Russia’s invasion 18 months ago. Ukrainian officials and civil society leaders say no effective elections can be held amid a Russian invasion that now occupies about 18 percent of Ukraine’s territory and has uprooted at least 11 million Ukrainians from their homes. Russian missile attacks continue to strike every region of the country, routinely hitting civilian targets and destroying basic infrastructure.
“In this situation, can we have the elections?” Ukraine’s ambassador in Washington, Oksana Markarova, asked in a discussion last week at USIP. “Well, definitely not, if you believe in free and fair elections.” She compared Ukraine’s situation with that of Britain during World War II, in which the British parliament voted annually to postpone overdue 1940 elections until after the war’s end.
An election held amid Russia’s invasion would ineluctably be a dangerously incomplete exercise, Ukrainian officials and civil society leaders say. Campaigning would be constrained by the war and the constant threat of Russian air attack; millions of Ukrainians would be unable to vote because they are under Russian occupation or displaced within Ukraine or abroad. Roughly 1 million are serving in the military, many with no chance to meaningfully follow a political campaign or vote. Even if such tremendous safety and logistical hurdles could be overcome, any elections would be vulnerable to Russia’s aggressive disinformation and interference.
Any such compromised election, far from providing a clear, national mandate to a president and parliament, would risk “de-legitimizing” the resulting government, according to Olga Aivazovska, a longtime pro-democracy activist who is board chair of OPORA, a Kyiv-based, non-partisan civic organization that promotes government accountability and monitors elections. OPORA circulated a letter among civil society organizations declaring that “elections and full-scale war are incompatible;” any attempt to hold national elections amid Russia’s invasion “is extremely dangerous and will lead to the loss of legitimacy of both the process and the elected bodies, and with a high probability of significant destabilization of the state.” OPORA lists dozens of Ukrainian pro-democracy and anti-corruption groups, university centers, local associations and human rights organizations that have signed on.
The Washington-based International Republican Institute (IRI) published an opinion survey last week that found 62 percent of Ukrainians favoring an indefinite postponement of elections until after the war, and a total of 71 percent favoring postponement at least until a year from now or longer. A similar poll issued this week by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology finds 81 percent of Ukrainians favoring a postponement of elections until “after the end of the war.” A total of nine recent opinion surveys have consistently found most Ukrainians — in majorities measured at 65 to 80 percent — favoring postponement of elections, said Peter Erben, who directs the Ukraine operations of the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES). Erben and Aivazovska spoke alongside Markarova at the USIP discussion last week, co-sponsored by IFES and the National Endowment for Democracy.
Even opposition political figures discourage any attempt to hold elections under Russian attack. Political analysts note that a presidential vote as scheduled next March would give extraordinary advantages to President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, letting him use his wartime boost in popularity (an 82 percent approval rating in the new IRI poll) to lock in a new five-year term. Dmytro Razumkov, a parliament member with an opposition party who is discussed by analysts as a possible presidential candidate, told Politico in September that in part because “a huge amount of territory is either under occupation, or the infrastructure there is destroyed,” Ukraine has “no possibility to organize the election process on the ground” during the war.
What’s Urgent Is Reforms
Zelenskyy’s administration and Ukraine’s civil society community both argue for strengthening democracy and government accountability by focusing now on an agenda of reforms. The OPORA civil society group worked with election experts at IFES to create a “roadmap” of reforms that urges a lengthy list of changes. They include laws to make the country’s Constitutional Court more “independent and effective,” create more proportionally representational electoral districts for the parliament and enforce greater transparency around the financing of political campaigns.
That reform agenda aligns with recommendations from prodemocracy institutions of the Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. And it is impelled by Ukraine’s determined drive to meet conditions for joining the European Union.
For Erben, the elections expert, the urgency now is for Ukraine not to hold elections that could endanger its democracy and its struggle for survival, but rather to pass electoral reforms before the war ends. Alongside the changes needed for fairer, transparent elections, overhauls will be needed in the national voter registry, in arrangements for voting by Ukrainians forcibly displaced and in other election logistics, he and other specialists say. Markarova echoed the need to keep making vital pro-democracy changes “in the judicial system” as well as “anti-corruption and deregulatory and other economic sector reforms.”
Ukrainians have noted calls by European or U.S. supporters for Ukraine to show its commitment to democracy by trying to hold elections while also fighting for survival against Russia’s invasion. Both officials like Markarova and activists like Aivazovska underscore that the war itself, against a Kremlin reimposition of authoritarian rule or influence, is Ukrainians’ most visceral, sacrificial act so far in a pro-democracy struggle now in its fourth decade.
Under Soviet rule in 1990, Ukrainian dissidents, many of them students, built tented camps and mounted a mass hunger strike on stone-paved public plazas to demand greater freedoms and more representative government. That uprising, which Ukrainians call their Revolution on Granite, helped topple the Soviet Union the following year. Ukrainians again massed peacefully in their streets in the 2004 Orange Revolution against a presidential election result found invalid by Ukraine’s Supreme Court. A decade later, their Euromaidan uprising led to the 2014 collapse of President Viktor Yanukovych’s administration after he opted to scuttle a long-planned association agreement with the European Union that Ukrainians saw as vital to their democratic evolution.
These grassroots movements reflected and consolidated a “craving … for democracy” that is “deeply ingrained … in our political culture,” Markarova said. For democracy, “as with everything else, priority number one is to win … the war” against the invasion launched last year by Russian President Vladimir Putin, Markarova said. Thus Ukrainians’ central request of the world’s democracies is for support, including weapons and toughened sanctions on Russia.
The civil society activists agreed. Many of those young Ukrainians who demonstrated peacefully for democracy in years past are now uniformed soldiers “dying for democracy” in muddy trenches and fields of the front lines, said Andriana Susak-Arekhta, a longtime prodemocracy campaigner who is now a senior sergeant in Ukraine’s army. Susak-Arekhta, wounded amid fighting in Kherson in 2022, was in Washington last week meeting U.S policymakers and others. Rather than seek a flawed voting exercise in which many Ukrainians, including soldiers, would be unable to participate meaningfully amid war, she said, “support us in fighting for democracy now” so that Ukrainians can vote for it in peace as soon as possible.