Patterico's Pontifications


Should Ukraine Hold Elections While Fighting Off the Russian Invasion?

Filed under: General — JVW @ 2:29 pm

[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.”


25 Responses to “Should Ukraine Hold Elections While Fighting Off the Russian Invasion?”

  1. Aarrrgh, I accidentally published this post too early and before I had time to copyedit it, so I will beg your indulgence if you come across some poor sentence constructions or some silly typos. I may take a pass through and try to clean it up a bit, but I also just may let it stet as is.

    JVW (1ad43e)

  2. The United Kingdom was supposed to hold an election in 1940,but didn’t until 1945 as soon as the war was over. In the United States an election was held in 1864, during the Civil War.

    There is no reason Ukraine’s election will not be ale to be held, but not everybody entitled to vote will be able to vote. Ukraine was already in a war with some territory occupied, both Crimea and in the east, in 2019.

    Israel postponed its scheduled election in 1973 (October 30) until December 31.

    The New York State primary held on September 11, 2001 was annulled, and rescheduled for two weeks later.

    The Republic of China, restricted to Taiwan, did not hold any elections for over 20 years and its Parliament contained representatives from all of China.

    Sammy Finkelman (1d215a)

  3. Thanks for the perspective, Sammy. I think the fact that Britain didn’t hold elections during World War II despite the fact that no German soldier was on British soil (though the Luftwaffe was incessantly bombing it) is instructive.

    The example of the U.S. holding a Presidential election during the Civil War is an interesting one too, but as I recall Gen. McClellan and the Democrats had a difficult time figuring out if they were for an immediate negotiated settlement or if they were adamant that the Southern states return to the Union. I wonder if that kind of minefield might trip up any challenger to Zelensky too.

    And the idea that Ukrainians in the Donbas and Crimea might be disenfranchised is important too. On the other hand, trying to allow voting in those areas gives the Russians ample opportunity to meddle.

    JVW (1ad43e)

  4. No. It’s insane that they can jail parties and disolve elections.

    NJRob (5f2e2d)

  5. No. It’s insane that they can jail parties and disolve elections.

    Oh come on, we’re talking about a country that is currently battling well over 100,000 enemy troops within its borders. It’s not as if they’re annulling or postponing elections under milder circumstances like Maduro or Abbas are famous for.

    JVW (1ad43e)

  6. we did during the civil war. Soldiers voted for lincoln.

    asset (9fcacb)

  7. The United States held Congressional elections in 1862 and 1864, at at time of existential danger. Lincoln ran for re-election in 1864 against an appeaser general he had fired for incompetence (but maybe for not wanting to fight the war).

    I can’t think of a time where we ever considered not holding an election, although 3 states delayed their elections in 1814 due to the vagaries of the War of 1812. Despite major losses in the war (Canada, Washington DC), the ruling Democrat-Republican party made substantial gains and the Federalist never recovered from their strident opposition to the war.

    Kevin M (ed969f)

  8. No. It’s insane that they can jail parties and dissolve elections.

    Parties that favor Russia? Eff ’em. Churchill jailed the National Front leadership in WW2. The GErman-American Bund leaders in the US were told in no uncertain terms to STFU. Father Charles Coughlin, a strident antisemite, anti-interventionist and supporter of Hitler was told by his bishop to cease and desist or be defrocked. FDR had Coughlin’s publications banned from the mails under the Espionage Act. Sedition charges were prepared but never brought as Coughlin ceased and desisted.

    Kevin M (ed969f)

  9. I am willing to bet that a newspaper in, say, Ohio that spread Southern propaganda in 1863 would have been shut down and it’s editor jailed under some pretext. Probably happened more than once.

    The US Army occupied Maryland — a slave state — to prevent secession, and Delaware — another slave state — got the message loud and clear. Lincoln also told the Supreme Court to go on vacation, and they did.

    Kevin M (ed969f)

  10. I think the fact that Britain didn’t hold elections during World War II despite the fact that no German soldier was on British soil (though the Luftwaffe was incessantly bombing it) is instructive.

    Given the situation in the UK in 1940, I very much doubt there was much demand for elections. Churchill had all the moral authority he needed, and the King could have dissolved Parliament at any time and demanded elections, but chose not to. Neither did the other parties. The Blitz was pretty brutal and England was united. An election at that time would have only strengthened the Tories. There was no point and everyone knew it.

    Kevin M (ed969f)

  11. 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:

    And that is really the problem — it is not Ukrainians who want an election, it is people outside Ukraine who — for a multitude of reasons, not all noble — are agitating for something Ukrainians neither want nor can afford. If anything resulted from elections, it would be a total wipe-out of the loyal opposition. They know that and are perfectly willing to wait and use the influence they have. AFTER, of course, the fingers start pointing….

    Kevin M (ed969f)

  12. Given the situation in the UK in 1940, I very much doubt there was much demand for elections.

    Is that the standard though? As long as there seems to be a general public consensus that elections are not needed then the ruling party can choose not to hold them? Obviously that sort of attitude would be ripe for abuse by pollsters, the media, and the current government.

    Let me ask it in an ironic way: should Ukraine hold a plebiscite to determine whether they need to hold a plebiscite?

    JVW (1ad43e)

  13. Is that the standard though? …

    Assuming that the war ends some day, there will be plenty of time to sort that out. Obviously, if Zelensky tried to hold power past the end of the war with no elections, it would be a huge problem. I doubt he would, as he wants Ukraine to join Europe and NATO, and being a dictatorship would be a show-stopper.

    So, later they hold elections, and everything that was an issue before comes out then. If Zelensky has any brains, he steps down and lets a new leader be chosen to take Ukraine into Europe, or not, as the people decide.

    Kevin M (ed969f)

  14. I’m very interested, have opinions, but it’s up to the the Ukrainians. They’ve got Russian’s inside their country to expel first. It’s not like anyone credible can claim the war inside Ukraine is a pretext for a power grab

    steveg (ddc4f1)

  15. I actually have some experience with this, on a much smaller scale.

    When Covid hit in March 2020, I was serving on the Trustee board of an international non-profit (operating in 22 countries, mostly first world). We had 11 Board members. By April 2020 we had nine, two had died of Covid. This gave us pause.

    Our organization was mostly run bottom-up, but we had an international office in California, which we were forced to close. We also had a number of national and international events under contract which we had to get out of without penalty, and like everyone, we discovered “force majure.”. Oh, and our local groups could not meet in person. Thank GOD for Zoom, but that had its limits.

    It was an emergency, and one that out charter was vague on. We took a number of decisions, all unanimous, that affected the organization and its programs. We were faced with existential problems (mostly involving running out of money or getting sued). Luckily we had a great deal of support from out membership for what we were doing.

    We even cancelled the Annual General Meeting scheduled for later in 2020, and elections scheduled for our own board, extending some of our own terms (a big no-no from any perspective). There was no way to hold the AGM and doing it over the internet would have exhausted our funds and required too much invention in too short a time (We held a hybrid AGM in 2021, since international travel was still impossible. It mostly worked — and cost a LOT).

    And we caught hell, of course, from the 5% who always criticize anything. That Board and its members will always be something I am proud of serving on, and with. The ankle-biters can go jump in a lake.

    Kevin M (ed969f)

  16. The Spectator piece also mentioned this…

    There is also the fact that to do so would require violating the constitution, which prohibits holding elections in a time of martial law.

    The last poll I saw (last June?), Zelenskyy had 90% approval, so he’d be a shoo-in for reelection.
    But how long will Ukraine be under martial law? What about two years from now, when Zelenskyy’s popularity could wane? To me, that’s the more relevant question.

    As for Poroshenko, he was another stinking rich oligarch in a long line of stinking rich oligarchs, and there was a reason for his arrest, given his business alliance with Medvedchuk, a bona fide traitor to Ukraine. It was also Poroshenko who installed Shokin as Chief Prosecutor, coaxing him out of retirement. But credit to Poroshenko for advocating for Ukraine’s rightful self-defense.

    Medvedchuk’s daughter has Vladimir Putin for a godfather, and he controlled multiple media outlets that broadcast a pro-Putin agenda. He was arrested for treason and put in prison. Earlier this year, he was sent off to Russia in a prisoner exchange. I don’t like that Zelenskyy shut down a media operation, but traitors should be an appropriate exception.

    I think there’s plenty of room for criticizing Zelenskyy for this and that, but it’s also fair to recognize the near impossible situation he’s in, because it’s not just an external invasion from Putin that he’s dealing with, there’s an embedded pro-Putin network inside Ukraine, and it’s not just media oligarchs and Putin-friendly political parties, there’s also a Russian Orthodox Church that is a wholly-owned Putin subsidiary and agent for the Kremlin.

    Paul Montagu (d52d7d)

  17. No. It’s insane that they can jail parties and disolve elections.

    Ukraine is constitutionally prohibited from holding elections while under martial law. Right now, it is impossible to open polling places in 17% of the country because it is criminally occupied by the enemy.

    Also, Rob, you don’t understand that those 11 political parties that were suspended (not banned) were overtly aligned with a Russian enemy that has been actively at war against Ukraine since 2014.

    Paul Montagu (d52d7d)

  18. Also, all the attention and teeth-gnashing and clothes-wrenching about Ukraine not holding a election which, by law, they cannot have, diverts from the actual reason why Ukraine cannot do so: Putin’s unlawful and unjustified and unprovoked invasion of a sovereign nation that was internationally recognized as having the right to exist, including by the Russian Federation, until Putin welshed.

    Not taking away from Ukraine’s issues, two of Putin’s political rivals are being held indefinitely in penal colonies (not to mention Americans held hostage in his prisons), and then there’s all the folks who crossed Putin but have had unfortunate “accidents”, and the sham referendums in occupied Ukrainian territories. Or about how presidential elections in Russia are as free and fair as any election you’ll find in the Iranian theocracy.

    Then there’s a Russian media that is completely closed and under Putin’s thumb, yet somehow they allow all manner of books and movies about Russian conquest. And is there any western ballet that expresses their art like this? How about some more attention to all the Russians who see Ukraine as a stepping stone to future conquest, such as the one Dana mentioned.

    Paul Montagu (d52d7d)

  19. Lincoln also told the Supreme Court to go on vacation, and they did.
    Kevin M (ed969f) — 10/3/2023 @ 5:12 pm

    Silent enim lēgēs inter arma. -Cicero

    Mankind has grappled with this question for a short while and continues to grapple.

    felipe (9bcc73)

  20. It’s up to Ukraine when/if they want to hold elections.

    I’m with JVW and others as I struggle with the “how to conduct an election when you’re actively fighting a war in your own backyard”.

    whembly (5f7596)

  21. BTW, part of the Ukrainian counteroffensive has been to neutralize Putin’s Black Sea fleet, despite their not having a functioning Ukrainian navy, and it’s been successful enough that grain shipments across the Black Sea have resumed.

    Paul Montagu (d52d7d)

  22. Paul Montagu (d52d7d) — 10/3/2023 @ 10:49 pm.

    It was also Poroshenko who installed Shokin as Chief Prosecutor, coaxing him out of retirement.

    Then you know something about it.

    The Republican position seems to be that Shokin was a good prosecutor, because Trump was told that by Giuliani – who was told that by Ukrainian sources probably acting as Russian agents. I do not believe he was a good prosecutor because nobody honest and informed seems to have said so..

    Even Jonathan Turkey has come close to echoing that good prosecutor meme, which means he is being very sloppy and/or trying to stay on their good side (which has been very obvious over time)

    …Consider just 10 of the disclosures from the prior investigation…

    2. Some of the Biden clients pushed for changes impacting United States foreign policy and relations, including help in dealing with Ukrainian prosecutor Viktor Shokin investigating corruption.

    I don;t even know what he’s referring to.

    But credit to Poroshenko for advocating for Ukraine’s rightful self-defense.

    Yes. He made his pile. That’s the way sensible oligarchs act.

    Joe Biden told a fantastic story about Poroshenko and the U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt: (this is the beta version of his tall tale about using his vice-presidential superpowers to fire Ukrainian Prosecutor General Viktor Shokin.)

    …I don’t go in and make demands. For example, [Ukraine President] Poroshenko, I pushed him on getting rid of a corrupt [prosecutor] general. We had committed a billion dollars, I said, “Petro, you’re not getting your billion dollars. It’s OK, you can keep the [prosecutor] general. Just understand—we’re not paying if you do.” I suspended it on the spot, to the point where our ambassador looked at me like, “Whoa, what’d you just do? Do you have the authority?” “Yeah, I got the authority. It’s not going to happen, Petro.” But I really mean it. It wasn’t a threat. I said, “Look, Petro, I understand. We’re not gonna play. It’ll hurt us the following way, so make your own call here.” The same with Erdogan.

    He didn’t say the prosecutor got fired. But 1 1/2 years later, he even implied the prosecutor was fired in six hours, although he didn’t say that:

    ….I was—not I, but it just happened to be that was the assignment I got. I got all the good ones. And so I got Ukraine. And I remember going over, convincing our team, our leaders to—convincing that we should be providing for loan guarantees. And I went over, I guess, the 12th, 13th time to Kiev. And I was supposed to announce that there was another billion-dollar loan guarantee. And I had gotten a commitment from Poroshenko and from Yatsenyuk that they would take action against the state prosecutor. And they didn’t.

    So they said they had—they were walking out to a press conference. I said, nah, I’m not going to—or, we’re not going to give you the billion dollars. They said, you have no authority. You’re not the president. The president said—I said, call him. (Laughter.) I said, I’m telling you, you’re not getting the billion dollars. I said, you’re not getting the billion. I’m going to be leaving here in, I think it was about six hours. I looked at them and said: I’m leaving in six hours. If the prosecutor is not fired, you’re not getting the money. Well, son of a bitch. (Laughter.) He got fired. And they put in place someone who was solid at the time…

    He doesn;t say whether they got the money or not. Joe Biden was actually in Kiev a total of 6 times, not 12 or 13, and the loan guarantee was suspended in around November, and Biden visted Kiev in December, and the Ukrainian Parliament voted to remove Shokin in March, and later around the beginning of June passed a package of U.S> endorsed anti-corruption bills, and the loan guarantee was announced in June at a press conference where the U.S. Ambassador was present but not then Vice President Joe Biden.

    there’s an embedded pro-Putin network inside Ukraine, and it’s not just media oligarchs and Putin-friendly political parties,

    And also politicians in the United States.

    Joe Biden is so scared that Ukraine aid might not be approved he plans an address to the American people. Of course, it’ll mostly be canned platitudes replete with some errors.

    This Ukraine matter has the potential to destroy both Jim Jordan and Joe Biden. Unfortunately, also harm the Ukrainian war effort and embolden Putin for awhile. But politics in the United State is so crazy, we deserve chaos. Maybe something good will come of it.

    Sammy FInkelman (7a85f9)

  23. JVW (1ad43e) — 10/3/2023 @ 3:11 pm

    Thanks for the perspective, Sammy. I think the fact that Britain didn’t hold elections during World War II despite the fact that no German soldier was on British soil (though the Luftwaffe was incessantly bombing it) is instructive.

    I don’t know when the decision was made not to hold the election. It requires better sources than what you find quickly or remember. It could have been in September, 1939. The Battle of Britain started in July, 1940 and the fall of France was in June

    A Parliamentary election was also not held during the First World War. It should have been held in 1916 according to the Parliament Act of 1911. It was actually held in December 1918, right after the Armistice – and that war, Winston Churchill said once, ended as suddenly as it began.

    And the idea that Ukrainians in the Donbas and Crimea might be disenfranchised is important too. On the other hand, trying to allow voting in those areas gives the Russians ample opportunity to meddle.

    Oh, they couldn’t be held in those areas and I would assume were not held in 2019. I would like to know how or if those constituencies were represented.

    There are also many Ukrainians in Poland and other countries and internally displaced, and every day some homes get destroyed. It apparently is also prohibited by the Ukrainian constitution under conditions of martial law.

    Sammy FInkelman (7a85f9)

  24. More on Ukrainian martial law.

    Martial Law was declared at start of invasion. It was enacted within existing legal framework provided by the Ukrainian Constitution & voted on by the parliament. Zelenskyy cannot unilaterally declare ML. The suspension of parties is not permanent, only for duration of ML.

    Paul Montagu (d52d7d)

  25. I betcha if the US were invaded from the South (e.g. “Red Dawn”) that martial law would be declared at least in the border states, and there would be a dim view of political advocates of the invading forces. Election in states with significant occupation would be suspended as well.

    Kevin M (ed969f)

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