Rumors are again circulating about the possibility of holding parliamentary elections this fall – even though under martial law. Journalists are asking questions about it, diplomats are talking about it, and politicians are speculating about it while someone is already campaigning. This can be seen on posters from the Poroshenko Foundation with political slogans that very much resemble those during Poroshenko’s presidential campaign in 2019: “Our Army Is Our Faith!” and “Our Weapon Is Our Language” and so forth.
In accordance with the Constitution, parliamentary elections normally should be held on the last Sunday of October in the fifth year of the Verkhovna Rada’s term, i.e., October 29, 2023. However, the Law of Ukraine on Elections of People’s Representatives bans any elections under martial law, which has been extended until November 2023.
So, why all these rumors? In fact, they began to circulate back in the spring, when many were expecting the Ukrainian military’s successful offensive to bring victory as early as this year. Besides, the opposition forces were apprehensive that President Volodymyr Zelensky’s team could capitalize on his high popularity rating to secure his re-election and his party's victory in the parliamentary elections.
Moreover, Tiny Kox, President of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), said in May that Ukraine should hold elections despite being in a state of war, explaining that democracy is above the state of war and restrictions of martial law. “There will be no questions to Ukraine if the elections are not perfect. But if you DO NOT hold elections, then everyone will have questions for you. Democracy is of course not only elections. But without elections democracy is impossible,” said Kox.
Discussions on elections got a new push in July from Verkhovna Rada Chairman Ruslan Stefanchuk, who said in an interview on the national Telethon that “the Constitution does not prohibit elections during martial law,” although a few weeks before he claimed that elections during the war would tear the country apart.
Many Ukrainian jurists criticized Stefanchuk and reminded him about Article 83 of the Constitution which says that “in case the Verkhovna Rada’s term expires during martial law or state of emergency, its term shall extend to the day of the first session of the Verkhovna Rada elected after the termination of martial law or state of emergency.”
Those opposing the idea of holding elections in wartime point to problems with ensuring voters’ security at polling stations as well as to difficulties for millions of displaced Ukrainians, especially those who fled the country. They also argue that political competition, which is traditionally tough and emotional during elections, would split society or at least substantially decrease the level of its consolidation, which would most certainly play in the enemy’s hand.
Proponents of the idea point out in response to these arguments that Ukraine already has the experience of elections in wartime: the presidential, parliamentary and local elections in 2014, 2015, 2019 and 2020. However, it should be noted that the war [which began in 2014 – Ed.] was of a smaller scale and the country was not under martial law. There were much fewer displaced persons and refugees, especially those who fled abroad. There were no Russian missile strikes that have been rocking and terrorizing Ukrainian cities and villages since the start of the full-scale invasion in February 2022.
Therefore, the opponents' arguments against holding elections during the war look weightier and more substantiated, especially in view of the current escalation of fighting and air attacks.
Still, why are elections being discussed more actively now? I think explanations could be found in the outlooks for the war developments and the overall political situation as well as in Ukrainian politicians’ psychological reflexes.
The President’s team is already preparing for elections, though in conceptual – rather than practical – terms. The opposition forces are aware of it and are afraid that the President’s team play in advance and hold elections while the conditions are favorable (Zelensky’s high rating versus the opposition forces’ low rating; the authorities’ control over the information space; restrictions on political activities due to martial law). In the countdown to the parliamentary elections, apprehensions are growing: what if Bankova [street, seat of the presidential administration – Ed.] announces them right now?
The President’s team is actually preparing for simultaneous presidential and parliamentary elections, knowing that Zelensky’s high rating is sure to secure overwhelming electoral support for him and his refurbished party. The elections are supposed to be held immediately after the war is over. And Ukraine’s victory should unquestionably mean a landslide victory in the elections for Zelensky and his political force.
However, it is obvious that this war is not going to end any soon. Moreover, circumstances might even coerce Kyiv to take an utterly unpopular step: a ceasefire along a certain engagement line. That would deliver a heavy blow on the President and his party, and that is why players in his team are increasingly interested in holding elections without waiting until the war is over.
But either way, the presidential (and possibly simultaneous parliamentary) elections will not be held at least until next spring, as required by the Constitution. Unofficially, the leaderships of the Rada and the President’s party rule out parliamentary elections in October and note that it is worthwhile starting discussions on the expediency of holding elections in wartime if it becomes clear that the war will not end in the foreseeable future.
All odds seem to be against parliamentary elections in October, organizational preparations for which should have begun earlier this month and necessary legal frameworks and other prerequisites for which should have been in place: 1) amendments to the law on martial law permitting elections in wartime; 2) an approved election budget; 3) amendments to the Electoral Code providing voting opportunities to millions of displaced Ukrainians. As yet, none of the respective draft bills has been put forward.
There is one more specific problem: Bankova’s distrust of the Central Election Commission whose members were appointed when the President’s Office was headed by Andriy Bohdan. One of the members, Yuriy Buhlak, has stayed in the United States ever since the war began but has received his regular salary. His very possible dismissal may trigger a chain reaction, in which the Commission may well be overhauled substantially or even completely.
Thus, for all the rumors, parliamentary elections will hardly be held in the near future and definitely not in October, whereas the question of holding presidential (and possibly simultaneous parliamentary) elections in March 2024 remains open.
The views expressed in this opinion article are the author’s and not necessarily those of Kyiv Post.
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