Ukraine Can’t Hold Elections During the War. Does it Matter?

Originally published in April 2024 in the Journal of Democracy

Russia’s brutal ongoing invasion is preventing Ukrainians from holding a presidential election and the campaigning that comes with it. What does that mean for Ukraine’s democracy?

By Anna Romandash

Were it not for Russia’s war, Ukrainian citizens would have gone to the polls a few weeks ago to pick their president. They would have voted last year, too, in parliamentary elections scheduled for October. Yet neither contest happened. Ukraine’s constitution prohibits elections under martial law, which President Volodymyr Zelensky declared when Russia launched its invasion on 24 February 2022 and has been in force ever since.

Even without the law, organizing mass elections amid an ongoing invasion poses serious practical challenges: how to run the vote in Russian-occupied territories; how to guarantee voters’ safety; what to do about the millions of refugees abroad; and how to provide the necessary time and space for political campaigning. Plus, running elections costs money, and the Russian assault has cost Ukraine not only invaluable losses in human life and generational trauma, but billions of dollars for defense and reconstruction — with the economic impact of the war exceeding US$51 billion per year. Yet without fair elections, can Ukraine have a just democracy? As the country and its people battle to survive, do elections even matter right now?

Russia’s propaganda machine has been exploiting the idea that without elections Ukraine’s government is illegitimate. The head of the occupation authority in Crimea (annexed by Russia in 2014), for instance, started a campaign against Zelensky, calling his presidency “illegitimate” to discredit the Ukrainian government in the eyes of Crimeans. Similar narratives are being circulated widely online — mostly by Kremlin-linked troll farms.

The illegitimacy claim is not new. Russia also used it in 2014, when pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych fled Kyiv for Russia and Ukrainians elected the pro-European Petro Poroshenko to replace him. The Kremlin, which did not recognize Ukraine’s 2014 election, claimed that Poroshenko was an “illegitimate” president, too. Of course, the 2014 vote only took place because Yanukovych had unleashed violence against Euromaidan protesters and then fled the country. That left Ukraine with no choice but to select a new president. Today, the logic of Russian propaganda has reversed — Zelensky is labeled illegitimate for not holding elections.

Do the propagandists have a credible claim? Not according to Ukrainians. The Kyiv International Institute of Sociology has found that more than 80 percent of Ukrainians oppose holding wartime elections. Their reasoning is simple: Soldiers wouldn’t be able to vote because they are in the trenches. Polling stations in the rear zone would be easy targets for Russian missiles. And finally, for most Ukrainians, elections and political campaigning are not a priority — but defending every inch of Ukrainian territory is.

Additionally, Ukrainians still maintain an unusually high level of trust toward authorities. For instance, around 64 percent of voters trust Zelensky six years into his presidency. By contrast, his predecessor, Poroshenko, had the trust of around just 14 percent of the people by the end of his single term; other Ukrainian presidents have had similarly low ratings.

Ukrainian attitudes toward parliament have been trending in the opposite direction. Most do not support its activities and consider it to be a weak and inefficient body. Only 15 percent of citizens trust parliament, and this number has been steadily declining. The mistrust stems from the performance of the MPs themselves — their low attendance in parliamentary meetings, slow policymaking, inability to quickly pass important laws, and lack of clear understanding about their wartime roles.

Yet despite their dislike of the current parliament, most still favor keeping it in place — again, because elections are not the priority right now. Ukrainians do not see how electing new lawmakers would help to defeat Russia, and they fear that such changes could create cleavages within Ukrainian society. The people are instead focused on making the government’s activities more accessible and transparent, and on reinforcing citizens’ ability to advocate for different policies. For instance, civil society pushed for reopening state data registries to track public spending and help prevent corruption. Citing security concerns, the government shut these down right after Russia launched the invasion, but quickly restored access after public outcry.

Democracy by Other Means

What is the state of democracy in Ukraine after two years of Russia’s full-scale war and without elections in sight? Ukrainians are willing to wait for fair and transparent elections until the war is over and a just peace is reached. At the same time, citizens want and advocate for efficient ways to communicate with the government so that policymakers know how they feel about different political and nonpolitical issues and decisions. Ukraine has a vibrant civil society, mass media, and digital systems; so the people have petitions, communication campaigns, and other tools through which they can tell the government what they want.

If democratic elections are fundamentally vehicles for agreeing on legitimate leaders and voicing popular priorities for government spending and policy, can these be achieved by other means in times of war? Since the invasion, Zelensky’s government has increasingly relied on digital tools to collect citizen feedback and interact with Ukrainians who became refugees overnight. Millions need documents while living abroad, and the demand for online tools to access government services has skyrocketed.

The government has, in response, worked to digitalize Ukrainian democracy by creating (or updating) state-run apps that are accessible to all citizens. The app Diia, for example, now has more than twenty-million users. With Diia, citizens can donate to the Armed Forces, request official documents, and pay taxes, and displaced people can apply for state support. Ukrainians can also use the app to vote in state-run surveys — an easy way to voice their concerns.

Diia was used in February to select Ukraine’s 2024 Eurovision song, with Ukrainians joking that this was a trial run for the presidential election. But that “trial run” also exposed the fragility of digital-democracy tools: The app crashed for a few hours as more than a million Ukrainians rushed to vote for their preferred song, and the government had to extend the polling period so more people could vote.

Any Ukrainian can also publish and vote for petitions on the president’s web portal. Petitions that receive 25,000 votes are automatically passed on to Zelensky or the relevant authorities for mandatory review and response. Petitions are an effective and popular instrument for voicing public opinion on different matters and getting guaranteed feedback from authorities. Even when petitions don’t get enough votes, they let the government know what citizens are concerned about most. Many petitions, for instance, call for investigating how different policies are being implemented or for addressing gaps within existing laws.

Through petitions, online campaigns, and other means, citizens continue to push for different policies, to change laws, and even to oust officials accused of corruption. For instance, Ukrainians petitioned for the minister of culture to be fired due to a variety of complaints, including his wartime spending; Zelensky dismissed him in July 2023. Another successful petition called for restoring the mandatory declaration of assets by Ukrainian public servants. Once the petition had 25,000 votes, both the president and parliament responded, and e-declarations were brought back.

Not every petition gets a quick response. This two-way communication is sometimes slow and limited; yet it shows how democratic processes can be preserved even amid war and a humanitarian crisis. In 2023 alone, Ukrainians registered more than six-thousand petitions. Of these, more than a thousand got the necessary 25,000 votes, and 150 have already received a response from the president; the others are pending. Seeing the popularity of this approach, local governments across Ukraine have adopted it for regional matters, allowing citizens to publish and sign petitions that concern their specific localities, municipalities, or regions.

Petitions and digital surveys cannot replace the elections, yet they do reveal some common popular understandings in Ukraine. Ukrainian citizens do want to choose their leaders, but only once it’s safe to organize elections. In the meantime, they hope to use and build on different channels of communication with the government so that it can follow up on public demands.

For most Ukrainians, elections for the sake of elections is not a sign of democracy but rather a copy of what’s happening in Russia. Russia never fails to hold elections on time — Vladimir Putin was just “elected” for a fifth presidential term in February. Simply holding a vote, however, does not make Russia a democracy. Instead it shows how such contests can be misused to create the façade of democracy when in fact the voting process is neither free nor fair. Conversely, skipping elections due to war doesn’t make Ukraine undemocratic. But it does highlight how war and its consequences complicate normal democratic processes that should be in place in peacetime.

Ukraine’s democracy remains flawed, but it’s still there. And while the government isn’t perfect, it is legitimate, and it continues working in a country badly affected by a genocidal war. Ukrainians are demanding more openness from their government and pushing for more accountability — both in the government’s execution of the war and its handling of the rebuilding process. They don’t always get timely responses, but they still have effective methods for making their voices heard and influencing the government.

The war has forced adjustments to everyday life in Ukraine and made a profound impact on how the country’s democracy operates. Yet even in this harsh reality, Ukrainians can criticize their authorities openly, voice concerns, and achieve significant political and social changes through advocacy and other means — all of which shows the vitality and resilience of Ukraine as a democratic state.

Anna Romandash is an award-winning journalist from Ukraine and the author of  Women of Ukraine: Reportages from the War and Beyond (2023).

Copyright © 2024 National Endowment for Democracy