"Ukraine's democracy dilemma" and similar concepts are reiterated by many global mass media outlets speaking about the challenge of holding an election in Ukraine in 2024.
For the West, this is a perfect symbol of Ukraine as a defender of European or Western values, of which democracy is a key one. For Ukraine, however, this is an extremely complicated issue because elections and the related political process may destabilize the country and divide its people.
Moreover, it would be extremely challenging to hold elections when a million citizens are at war while another five to seven million have fled the country.
"Holding democratic elections during wartime would be seen as a bold and consequential decision"— Senator Graham
This statement made by U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) on August 28 brought about serious arguments in Western mass media about holding a wartime election in 2024.
Earlier this year, PACE President Tiny Kox raised the issue of elections in Ukraine back in May, but his words "to start preparing for it (election) as soon as possible" didn’t cause mass agitation at the time.
Our mass media have explained previously that elections cannot be held during martial law for both legal and practical reasons:
- the Law on the Legal Regime of Martial Law, Art. 19, explicitly bans general elections under martial law;
- the government would hardly ensure the security of voters and observers under massive missile attacks;
- ensuring adequate access to elections for military service members and refugees is unrealistic;
- Ukraine struggles to cover its current government expenditures and therefore has no sources for funding elections;
- residents of temporarily occupied territories, who constitute about 20% of the total Ukrainian population, are deprived of the opportunity to vote.
Volodymyr Zelenskyi’s answer to the suggestion of possible elections
In his interview with Nataliia Moseichuk, the president said that legislative changes and Western funding were prerequisites to an election in 2024. He estimated the necessary funding at $5 billion, adding that "I will neither hold elections on credit nor take money from weapons and give them to fund elections". Therefore, if the West is really willing to hold wartime elections, it should pay for them.
The main election risk is the safety of people
At the Yalta European Strategy (YES) conference in Kyiv on September 8, 2023, Volodymyr Zelenskyi added:
"We are ready to organize elections. It is not a question of democracy. It is a question of security," the president said cautiously, probably implying that elections are unlikely to be held until security in Ukraine is ensured.
The Atlantic Council makes a similar argument from the Western side in its editorial:
"Ukraine should hold its next elections at a time when the country can guarantee the security and democratic standards of those elections. While this cannot be guaranteed during the current all-out war, Ukraine can reconfirm its deep commitment to democracy by restarting its electoral reform process immediately," says the Atlantic Council.
Moreover, the Council notes that Ukraine’s commitment to democracy is not in question and names the Orange Revolution and the Revolution of Dignity as proof.
Why it is so important for the United States and Europe to hold elections despite war
The dilemma of wartime elections can be summarized as follows:
- on the one hand, Ukraine cannot dismiss the idea of holding elections without estranging quite a lot of Western politicians and playing into the hands of Russian propaganda and anti-Ukrainian rhetoric in the United States and Europe;
- on the other hand, holding elections looks nearly impossible because of the challenges mentioned above. Who can effectively guarantee the security of voters, even if martial law is lifted or the Constitution is changed? Will it be NATI, which refused to close the Ukrainian sky?
"I am very pleased to hear that President Zelensky has opened the door to elections in Ukraine in 2024. I can't think of a better symbol for Ukraine than holding free and fair elections during a time of war. The elections will be seen not only as an act of defiance against the Russian invasion but also as a recognition of democracy and freedom," said Senator Graham after his meeting with Volodymyr Zelenskyi during his visit to Kyiv on August 28.
Elections are a symbol for allies but a set of actual risks for us
Graham also said he couldn’t think of a better symbol for Ukraine than holding free and fair elections during a time of war. The senator’s stance is shared by most speakers, both foreign and Ukrainian, who advocate for holding elections despite the war. The democratic process must go on, they say.
That said, for Americans, who are the most vocal proponents of wartime elections, and Europeans, elections are merely a sign to show their local audiences—which is also important—that Ukraine is a democratic country and belongs to the West. However, for Ukrainians, they mean a set of actual security risks and extremely challenging requirements, which include changing the Constitution or lifting martial law for a few months.
How do Washington and the global mass media see possible elections?
According to The Washington Post, senior Biden administration officials say (although no official statement was made by the White House regarding this issue) that it’s up to Ukraine to decide when to hold elections.
A senior U.S. official told WP that the Biden administration was sympathetic to the many logistical obstacles to holding an election in wartime.
"We’re not pushing them to have an election," he said.
Other global media outlets have made similar, incredibly balanced points. In their opinions, holding elections in times of such a war is extremely unrealistic due to the risks mentioned above.
It is also important to note that the last war in Europe involving devastation of this scale was WWII. And despite being a democratic country, Britain had no elections during both World Wars, while other European democracies were occupied. And unlike Ukraine, no part of Britain was occupied, although the country was extensively bombed by the Third Reich.
So the election dilemma will likely persist because the idea can be neither dismissed nor realistically implemented. Moreover, the speakers who have caused so much agitation in the mass media aren’t top-level officials, while we see no leaders of European countries pressing for election in 2024—at least so far.