Western officials press Ukraine to hold elections despite war

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KYIV — Despite Russia’s war in Ukraine and a nationwide state of martial law, some Western politicians are pushing the government in Kyiv to hold parliamentary and presidential elections — a prospect that has left many Ukrainian officials scratching their heads.

The proposal — initially floated by Tiny Cox, the Dutch head of the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly — was also pressed by Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), during a visit to Kyiv last month with Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), which otherwise focused on solidifying U.S. assistance and bipartisan support for Ukraine.

Other Republicans have also taken up the cause, including conservative commentators like Tucker Carlson, who falsely accused Zelensky of canceling elections. Ukraine’s constitution prohibits elections under martial law.

Holding free and fair elections in wartime is virtually impossible and also ill-advised, according to Ukrainian officials, election experts and democracy advocates. Roughly one-fifth of Ukraine’s territory is now occupied by Russian forces. Millions of Ukrainians are displaced and many are living outside the country. Tens of thousands of soldiers are deployed to the front.

The pressure to hold elections, despite such obstacles, highlights the constant demand by some in the West that Ukraine prove its commitment to democracy, even though Ukrainians have twice risen up in mass pro-democracy demonstrations — the Orange Revolution of 2003-4 and the Maidan Revolution of 2013-14.

Ukrainian officials say that in order to hold a major vote during wartime, considerable financial, logistical and legal hurdles must be overcome. In private, some say that the prospect is outright impossible, and could provide Moscow security forces with a means to infiltrate and weaken Ukraine from within.

“The Russians are pushing for this through their secret channels,” a Ukrainian official in the security apparatus said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject. “There is no situation in which it is possible to have a democratic election during the war.”

The official said holding an election could give Russia an opportunity to manipulate and create divisions in Ukrainian society and among politicians, which for most of the war have disappeared to show solidarity while the country fights for its existence.

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“It’s risky, bad for the country and senseless from a political point of view,” the official said adding: “It would undermine the very fragile political resilience of the Ukrainian state.”

But Kyiv officials also cannot dismiss the idea of holding elections out of hand and risk alienating key political players in the West, who are demanding elections and are crucial for Ukraine to maintain international financial and military assistance.

Former Ukrainian prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko said that holding elections during wartime would lead to Ukraine losing the war, as internal political disagreements — differences that occur naturally in a democratic society — shatter the national unity needed to defeat Russia.

“The price of holding elections in wartime will be a lost war,” Tymoshenko said in an interview in Brussels this month. “Unity is an indispensable resource for our victory.”

Tymoshenko also noted that soldiers fighting would have difficulty voting and are barred by law from seeking office in wartime. “Those who are sacrificing their lives on the front line, most of them will not be able to vote,” she said, adding: “Seven million Ukrainian people are now refugees, many living outside the country — most of them will not be able to vote.”

In May, Cox, a Dutch politician, gave an interview to Ukrainian media in which he called on Kyiv to hold elections that were “as free and fair as possible.” He gave the example of Turkey holding elections directly after experiencing a major earthquake as proof that holding a vote was possible.

Cox later amended his comments, acknowledging that elections could not be held while Ukraine was under martial law, which is unlikely to be lifted before the war ends. But, he said, “at a certain moment there will be elections, and my advice is to start preparing for it as soon as possible.”

Graham made his push during a meeting with Zelensky while visiting Kyiv as part of a congressional delegation. At a news conference ahead of the meeting, he said it was “time for Ukraine to take the next step” in the “development of democracy, namely to hold elections in 2024.”

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“I want this country to have free and fair elections, even when it’s under attack,” Graham said.

In an interview with Ukrainian media after Graham’s visit, Zelensky said the U.S. senator’s proposal was “very reasonable, very fair.” But he also said that he told Graham elections in Ukraine under martial law were only possible “if the right to vote is ensured for all citizens.”

“How will the military be able to vote? Show me the infrastructure. No one has shown it yet,” Zelensky said. “How will people abroad be able to vote? No one has shown me.”

The following day, Graham issued a statement, saying that he was “very pleased to hear that President Zelensky has opened the door to elections in Ukraine in 2024,” calling the decision “bold and consequential” and “an act of defiance against the Russian invasion.”

“I cannot think of a better symbol for Ukraine than to hold free and fair elections during the course of a war,” Graham said.

His statement acknowledged that Ukraine’s parliament “must approve this” and “the security environment” for a vote “would be challenging.”

Zelensky also said Ukraine could not afford the $135 million cost of holding an election while it is fighting for its very survival. He suggested that if the West wants an election then it should pay for it.

“I will not hold elections on credit. I will not take money from weapons and allocate it to elections, either,” Zelensky said.

The money, he said, would go to organizing the vote among soldiers and for the estimated 7 million Ukrainian refugees abroad. The West would also have to send election observers, who would be “in the trenches,” Zelensky said.

Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy called Zelensky’s demand for $135 million a “ballot box shakedown.” Ramaswamy previously said that the U.S. should stop funding Ukraine and force Kyiv to negotiate with Moscow.

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“His veiled threat to forgo democratic elections in Ukraine unless the American people foot the bill and cough up another $135 million in funding represents a new level of extortion of the United States,” Ramaswamy said in a statement published by Fox News.

In August, Ukraine’s parliament extended martial law by 90 days, until November, thereby postponing a parliamentary election that was supposed to take place no later than the end of October.

For parliamentary elections to take place, the constitution must be amended, legal experts say. Alternatively, martial law could be lifted.

However, members of parliament would need to halt martial law for at least two to three months — the time required under Ukrainian law between the announcement of elections and voting day, and also to allow candidates enough time to campaign.

Senior Biden administration officials have said that it’s up to Ukraine to decide when to hold elections. During a visit to Kyiv earlier this month, Secretary of State Antony Blinken urged Zelensky to consult widely with civil society and the Ukrainian opposition on when to hold the next vote.

A senior U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive topic, said that the Biden administration is sympathetic to the many logistical obstacles to holding an election in wartime.

“We’re not pushing them to have an election,” the senior official said.

One Ukrainian member of parliament said the pressure was coming primarily from Republicans as the 2024 presidential election gets underway. “This is logical and to be expected,” the lawmaker said, speaking on condition of anonymity to protect diplomatic relations. “Of course, Ukrainian affairs will one way or another become part of the domestic American discourse.”

Tymoshenko, the former prime minister, said that her party disagrees with Zelensky on many issues but opposes holding elections under current conditions. “We are absolutely against this,” she said. “To lose the war only because somebody wants elections — it’s unacceptable.”

Isabelle Khurshudyan in Kyiv contributed to this report.

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