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Over 100 NGOs say Ukraine cannot hold elections in wartime

Holding presidential elections in Ukraine in wartime could undermine national unity and provide openings for Russian disinformation, Ukrainian NGOs tell foreign critics.
Photo: Konstantyn Liberov, city of Bakhmut, Donetsk Oblast, 02\10\2023
Over 100 NGOs say Ukraine cannot hold elections in wartime

Over 100 Ukrainian human rights NGOs have issued a public appeal stating that presidential elections and full-scale war are incompatible, ZMINA.Center for Human Rights reported.

A hundred NGOs, including Transparency International Ukraine, Kyiv School of Economics, Civil Network OPORA, Movement CHESNO and others, say that the idea of elections during the ongoing war is dangerous and will lead to the loss of legitimacy of both the process and the elected bodies. This may significantly destabilize the state as a whole.

The appeal comes in response to growing calls from international partners, including US Senator Lindsey Graham, to hold elections in Ukraine in March 2024.

“I want free and fair elections to occur in this country, even under attack,” Lindsey Graham said and concluded, “I believe it’s time for Ukraine to take the next step in its democratic development, particularly to hold elections in 2024.”

According to the NGOs’ appeal, elections alone do not constitute democracy. The mere act of voting does not prove a regime is truly democratic. Elections would only be free if a competitive political struggle were possible during the campaign.

“Elections are not about one day of voting but rather a loud debate between different parties about the best program for state development. Such a dialog can be extremely heated and unbearably open, but it is the only way to ensure a truly democratic process.”

Ukrainian officials, including President Zelenskyy, have refuted international partners’ calls, as martial law prohibits elections.

Ukrainian human rights NGOs also emphasized in their appeal that laws with full legitimacy that all parties must observe explicitly prohibit holding any elections, including presidential ones, during wartime. All authorities must function fully, maintain legitimacy, and remain unified.

Article 83(4) of the Constitution of Ukraine states: “In the event of the expiration of the term of office of Ukraine’s Verkhovna Rada during martial law or a state of emergency, its powers shall be extended until the first meeting of the first session of Ukraine’s Verkhovna Rada elected after the lifting of martial law or a state of emergency.”

Such provisions align with principles followed by other democratic countries. Any attempts to change legislation to make wartime elections “legal formally” would contradict the spirit of the Constitution and international standards.

However, during the annual meeting of the Yalta European Strategy on 8-9 September 2023, Zelenskyy announced that Ukraine is ready to hold elections in 2024, but “there are several problems that need to be solved.”

Thus over 100 NGOs called the Ukrainian government to postpone until the war’s end and Ukraine’s victory, providing other reasons why elections cannot be held in wartime.

  • The inability to ensure full participation of the military and voters living abroad. Excluding soldiers and volunteers from voting or running as candidates due to their wartime duties may spur internal clashes and misunderstandings. Displaced Ukrainians abroad from exercising their democratic rights could also stoke tensions between refugees and locals.
  • This could undermine national unity as real heroes are fighting and risking their lives while politicians are cynically fighting for power. Moreover, disinformation campaigns, spreading extensively by Russia in Ukraine and globally, may delegitimize the election process and results by undermining the credibility of organizers and participants.
  • The legal regime of martial law restricts rights and freedoms, while elections require expanding and protecting those rights. According to Article 64 of the Constitution of Ukraine, some restrictions on rights and freedoms may be imposed under martial law. This makes it impossible to fully ensure freedom of speech and press during the war, which guarantees free and fair competition in elections.
  • Ukraine faces extreme security and operational challenges if presidential elections occur during wartime. Securing polling stations will be a struggle as police take part in the military for the war effort. Guaranteeing full security for all participants is almost impossible as around 20% of Ukraine is occupied or an active war zone and another 20% is within the immediate reach of artillery installations. As a state that values human life and health highly, Ukraine cannot risk the lives of millions of citizens when Russia is actively attacking civilians across the country.
  • Besides, a potential massive missile strike on election day could make polling stations inaccessible and disrupt the process entirely. There also may be challenges for disabled citizens and veterans disabled in the war in casting their votes under such conditions.
  • Holding post-war elections in Ukraine will be costly due to the consequences of the war with Russia. In wartime, such expenses are unjustified and cynical, as Ukraine is still fighting for its existence. Ukraine’s more pressing needs are weapons, ammunition, medical supplies, and other vital aid for its continued fight for freedom and sovereignty.

Moreover, the NGOs highlighted in their appeal that Ukrainians support extending the term of office of elected authorities until the war’s end. Recent nationally representative opinion polls in Ukraine show clear support among Ukrainians for extending the terms of elected officials until the end of the war, even though there is current dissatisfaction with parliament and other institutions. This suggests Ukrainians see maintaining continuity in leadership during wartime as more important than holding new elections.

According to the NGOs, elections in Ukraine should be held, but only after the war is over and Ukraine has won. Instead of holding a presidential election in March 2024, during wartime, human rights organizations called on the Ukrainian government to urgently begin comprehensive expert work to address the challenges of post-war elections.

“They should develop the necessary draft laws through inclusive discussions and uphold the principle of legal certainty. In this way, Ukraine can reaffirm its deep commitment to democracy by resuming the broader electoral reform process currently on hold,” they stated in the appeal.

At the same time, political parties should “focus on democratizing and developing their organizations, not polarizing public sentiment for political gain.” And Ukraine’s international partners should “increase systemic support in the military, humanitarian, and economic spheres to end the war as soon as possible with Ukraine’s victory. So then democratic elections can take place,” as per Ukrainian human rights organizations.

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