[guest post by JVW]
This is the compelling question posed by Ukrainian refugee Svitlana Morenets in an interesting piece over at The Spectator. She provides the context:
In the months before Russia invaded Ukraine last year, Volodymyr Zelensky was fighting for his political life. The former comedian was elected in 2019 on a pledge to end the war in Donbas by an electorate exasperated with its political class. Zelensky initially set out to negotiate with Vladimir Putin — but achieved nothing. He appeared naive and out of his depth.
However, Zelensky’s transformation into a wartime leader captured the world’s imagination and rallied his allies. Yet some of those allies are beginning to ask whether, if this war is really about the free world versus autocracy, as Zelensky claims, Ukraine should hold a general election next year.
I hadn’t given much thought to this question, and now, having read the piece, I am utterly engrossed by it. I can’t think of any instances in modern history where an ostensibly functioning democracy has held open and free elections while enemy combatants are within its borders, certainly not during either of the World Wars. France held a legislative election in May 1914, twelve weeks before the Great War began and three months before the Kaiser’s army first entered French soil. They did not have another election until 1919. That is about the only case of a war bogged down in stalemate with fighting in a democracy that I can think of; the Nazi blitzkrieg overwhelmed countries too quickly for any of them to have faced the quandary of trying to hold a legitimate plebiscite while still fighting.
According to Ms. Morenets, President Zelensky has told Senator Lindsey Graham that Ukraine will hold its scheduled election this coming spring, provided that one of its benefactor nations pony up the estimated $130 million that the election would likely cost. This is fraught with peril on several fronts, not the least of which is the prospect of Russian propaganda meddling in Ukrainian electoral affairs. To hear our own Democrats relate it, Vladimir Putin can swing a U.S. election by only spending a few million dollars on Facebook ads, so imagine what havoc he could wreck in a nation with about one-ninth of our population and whose pre-invasion GDP was only one one-hundred-and-sixteenth of our own.
Would there be challengers to the current President? Ms. Morenets informs us that of course there would, but they would likely not be formidable:
An election would make very little difference. Zelensky has an unprecedented trust rating of 80 percent. An even higher proportion say that fighting should continue until Russia leaves the country entirely, including Crimea. This might sound like a hardline position, but in Ukraine it is an accepted and deeply held standpoint. Polls show that only a quarter of Ukrainians wish to replace Zelensky even if they were to win the war.
In fact, Ms. Morenets believes that the typical Ukranian would see pressure to hold an election as the West making a backroom attempt to replace President Zelensky with a new figure who would be more amenable to seeking a negotiated solution to the conflict, one that would inevitably involve seceding the Donbas as well as Crimea to Russia. According to her, the Ukrainian people overwhelmingly reject this as an appropriate compromise.
But Ms. Morenets is also not blind to some of the problems very inconvenient to the Ukrainian leadership which would undermine their efforts to press the case that Ukraine is fighting for democratic values. One that I mentioned in passing some time back is that even before the first shot had been fired the Zelensky government was aggressively seeking to silence Russian voices in Ukraine, in a way which Americans who prize our First Amendment values would find very troublesome:
Television has long played a vital role in Ukraine’s political debate. The channels are usually oligarch-owned and promote certain politicians. A large TV channel has the power to propel an unknown figure into pole position in a state election; equally, it can attack the enemies of whoever owns the station. But the old variety of TV news has been replaced by exclusively pro-government programs, with all commercial television now under state control. Three channels run by Petro Poroshenko, the fifth Ukrainian president and the second-most popular politician until the 2022 invasion, have been turned off. Pro-Russian parties have been proscribed, but Poroshenko has pro-western views and is unlikely to pose a threat to national security. Banning his channels looks more like an attempt by Zelensky to silence an opponent. This was a tactic of his even before the full-scale war: to consolidate power and eliminate potential competitors.
Ukraine’s six big TV news channels have been merged into one “United News.” Initially, it kept Ukrainians informed about the latest developments in the war. Over time, it has transformed into a promotional platform for certain members of Zelensky’s party, specifically Mykhailo Podolyak, one of his chief advisers, and Andriy Yermak, head of the president’s office. There’s precious little airtime for the Ukrainian opposition. “European Solidarity,” Poroshenko’s party, is the only opposition force with the potential to make any impact in the next parliament.
In addition to Mr. Poroshenko, a potential challenger to President Zelensky would be former WBO and WBC Heavyweight Champion and current Mayor of Kyiv Vitali Klitschko. The two men squabbled in the pre-war days over the executive office’s attempts to usurp authority on certain matters from the mayor’s office, and the two are said to have a very frosty relationship. There is also former prime minister and Orange Revolution heroine Yulia Tymoshenko, who has unsuccessfully sought the presidency three times. Her candidacy is hampered by cooperation with Russian oil interests during the prime ministership. Dmytro Razumkov is the former chair of Mr. Zelensky’s political party, but though he has quietly been building his own political base comprised of former party members they appear to be reluctant to mount a challenge at present. Ukraine has popular politicians from the younger generation who have proven to be effective at lobbying friendly nations for support for Ukraine’s war efforts, yet Ms. Morenets does not see them as being willing to mount a challenge at present.
Given the circumstances it seems quite foolish that Ukraine would attempt to hold an election this spring, especially since Ms. Morenets believes that once the battlefield has cooled and either the Russians have gone home or the boundaries of Ukraine have been redrawn, Volodymyr Zelensky is likely to enter into a Churchillian retirement (tantalizingly, that metaphor has a variety of meanings). According to her, there is just no appetite among the Ukrainian people to change horses in midstream, especially when the stream is flooding. As she concludes, “to ask Ukrainians if they want to keep or reject their President while he’s fighting a war is to pose a question to which there will be only one answer.”