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No election is a gift to Zelensky’s critics

May 21, 2024 - 10:00am

On 20 May 2019, when Volodymyr Zelensky’s five-year term as Ukrainian President began, he could hardly have suspected that it would be extended indefinitely. However, thanks to Russia’s invasion, that is exactly what has happened. Zelensky’s term officially ended yesterday and the presidential election which would have, under peacetime conditions, been held in March has been postponed under the martial law imposed over the past two years of war.

In the President’s defence, organising an election during a war would be challenging, given the logistical difficulties of heading to the polls when a significant number of voters are abroad, on the frontline or living under Russian occupation. That is before turning to the issue of how to convince the electorate of the legitimacy of any result, given the almost-certain risk of Russian disinformation and manipulation. Add to that the additional threat of Moscow taking advantage of the distraction generated by an election, and it’s easy to see the rationale for a delay.

Yet, by simply remaining in power, Ukraine’s wartime leader is finding himself under attack from his domestic opponents. Back in December, Kyiv Mayor and Zelensky rival Vitali Klitschko warned that Ukraine was sliding towards authoritarianism and predicted that “at some point we will no longer be any different from Russia, where everything depends on the whim of one man”. The expiration of Zelensky’s formal mandate can only add fuel to the fire, as domestic challengers eager for their own chance to sit at the top table paint the incumbent as an illegitimate autocrat hooked on power. In March, ex-parliamentarian Hryhoriy Omelchenko published a letter questioning the legal basis for Zelensky to remain in post after 20 May under the Ukrainian constitution, urging him “not to usurp state power” but instead resign voluntarily on schedule.

Even those querulous voices in Ukraine are nothing compared to what the true adversary is saying. The Kremlin has already been pushing the line that, after 20 May, Zelensky loses his legitimacy as leader. In February, Ukrainian MP and alleged Russian agent Oleksandr Dubinsky stated that “after May 20th, the Rada is legitimate but the President is not”, claims which were gleefully repeated by Russian state news agency TASS. Putin also raised the issue of Zelensky’s legitimacy after this date during last week’s visit to China.

Zelensky has made the defence of democratic values and freedom central to his own fight against Moscow. However, the “whataboutism” and accusations of hypocrisy so beloved of the Kremlin mean that Russia will likely now ask how a leader who refuses to hold an election can portray himself as a guardian of democracy. While March’s presidential election in Russia was clearly a sham — the intimidation and vote-rigging were straight from the Kremlin playbook — it did take place, allowing Putin to now claim that he, not Zelensky, is the legitimately elected president who holds a democratic mandate from his people.

Perhaps even more dangerous than Zelensky’s enemies are his allies, some of whom are already impatiently demanding to know what plan the Ukrainian leadership has for going to the ballot box. In May 2023 Tiny Kox, a Dutch politician and then-President of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe urged Ukraine to find a way to hold an election, possibly by amending the constitution. In August, US Republican Senator Lindsey Graham pushed for Ukraine to head to the polls in 2024, promising Zelensky that the US would keep weapons flowing before adding that “we need an election in Ukraine”. This goes to show how easily the issue can be weaponised.

For all the opprobrium of his critics, Zelensky has not rejected having an election at some point in the future, saying in November that it was “not the right time”. The Kyiv International Institute of Sociology found in February that only 15% of Ukrainians want elections under the current circumstances, while Ukraine’s constitution states that the president exercises their powers until the assumption of office by their newly-elected successor.

However, as Russia makes progress on the battlefield and Putin’s appointments show he is settling in for a long war, such a consensus around Zelensky may not hold. Then, if Ukrainians seek a new leader, they will find no way of removing the old one.


Bethany Elliott is a writer specialising in Russia and Eastern Europe.

BethanyAElliott

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A D Kent
A D Kent
1 month ago

 Yet again the West’s relentless parpings about democracy turn out to be shallow, cynical and driven by political expediency rather than moral duty. There were no concerns over the “challenging” situation of holding elections in the chaos of Iraq or Afghanistan. In the latter case there were active threats made by the Taliban towards those running the elections, the polling stations and the voters, but those little trifles were brushed aside. Now though, in a country with telephones, high literacy rates, the internet and everything, this is too hard and too dangerous. Pull the other one.

The West can’t afford Zelensky’s removal – he’s aware of the closet full of skeletons and they’ll need him as a scapegoat for the eventual, catastrophic, defeat.  

Stephen Walsh
Stephen Walsh
1 month ago
Reply to  A D Kent

The UK had no general election between 1935 and 1945, and it wasn’t even under partial military occupation. It was still a democracy, certainly compared to the Enemy.

A D Kent
A D Kent
1 month ago
Reply to  Stephen Walsh

Notwithstanding that your point probably offers some support to my ‘shallow, cynical and politically expedient’ observation, I’d note that the Churchill government at the time did include plenty of members of his political opposition in positions of influence. The Zelensky regime does not.

El Uro
El Uro
1 month ago
Reply to  A D Kent

I’d note that the Churchill government at the time did include plenty of members of his political opposition in positions of influence. The Zelensky regime does not.
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Sorry, this is a weak objection based on emotional bias. Something along the lines of “The Orange Man Is Bad.”
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Try better next time 🙂

PS. It’s about the argument, not about Zelensky, believe me, and “Zelensky regime” sounds like quote from “Pravda”. Not good

David Stewart
David Stewart
1 month ago
Reply to  Stephen Walsh

The war against Japan was still ongoing when the 1945 election was held in July, with Churchill being replaced by Atlee halfway through the Potsdam conference after his unexpected defeat.

Stephen Walsh
Stephen Walsh
1 month ago
Reply to  David Stewart

I don’t think Britain’s military position between VE Day and VJ Day was remotely comparable to that facing Ukraine today.

Graham Stull
Graham Stull
1 month ago

“In May 2023 Tiny Kox, a Dutch politician and then-President of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe urged Ukraine to find a way to hold an election, possibly by amending the constitution.”
I never knew the Dutch had Tiny Kox.

Francisco Menezes
Francisco Menezes
1 month ago
Reply to  Graham Stull

It should be pronounced as ‘teenie’. Mystery solved for you.

Steven Carr
Steven Carr
1 month ago

‘teenie’ to rhyme with ‘weenie’?

Graham Stull
Graham Stull
1 month ago

And I would have gotten away with my dad joke too, if it wasn’t for you meddling kids.

El Uro
El Uro
1 month ago

Perhaps even more dangerous than Zelensky’s enemies are his allies, some of whom are already impatiently demanding to know what plan the Ukrainian leadership has for going to the ballot box. In May 2023 Tiny Kox, a Dutch politician and then-President of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe urged Ukraine to find a way to hold an election, possibly by amending the constitution. In August, US Republican Senator Lindsey Graham pushed for Ukraine to head to the polls in 2024, promising Zelensky that the US would keep weapons flowing before adding that “we need an election in Ukraine”. This goes to show how easily the issue can be weaponised.
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Let me translate this demand for a change in the constitution and for elections during the war from diplomatic language into ordinary language. One Tiny Kox and those who manipulate him (the EU and Biden) want to fix the status quo, give Putin what he wants, and take a breath.
It is difficult to expect otherwise if the American administration feared that the death of the Iranian president could be a trigger for World War III.
Let me also remind you once again that during the collapse of the USSR, Russia was the first to declare independence by decision of the Russian parliament. Ukraine was second after the referendum (!).
For those who are sure that the current war is the work of the United States and the EU, I would like to note again that one of Yeltsin’s closest advisors stated the existence of Russia’s territorial claims to Ukraine and Kazakhstan in the early 90s, and this statement was not refuted by anyone in Russia.

El Uro
El Uro
1 month ago
Reply to  El Uro

UnHerd doesn’t give me opportunity to update previous comment, so postscript is here:
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Nowadays it is customary to complain about young people who have little knowledge of history, but looking at the local commentators, you understand that this disease has deeper roots.
Breakup of Yugoslavia – 1991-2008. Okey, let’s blame again US, UK, EU.
Breakup of British Empire – since 1947 till 1997. Okey, blame US.
Algerian War – 1954-1962. Who we have to blame? Nuland was born in 1961.
Dissolution of the Russian Empire – Well, of course the Americans and the British, no one else.
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I like conspiracy theorists, listening to them is exciting, but life, alas, is much more prosaic. The collapse of empires is almost always bloody for internal reasons. Blaming the US and EU for today’s war is for freshmen, modern historians can teach them much more impressive nonsense, but let’s try to be more mature.
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However, looking at how persistently readers downvote my previous comment, there is almost no hope left for the sanity of them

John Wood
John Wood
1 month ago

Ukraine is a corrupt country ruled by a corrupt President. If Zelensky had been honest with the voters when being elected war need never have happened and Zelensky would probably never have been made President. A total disaster for Ukraine but one of their own making

El Uro
El Uro
1 month ago
Reply to  John Wood

Does it justify Putin?

ChilblainEdwardOlmos
ChilblainEdwardOlmos
1 month ago
Reply to  El Uro

Irrelevant

Benedict Waterson
Benedict Waterson
1 month ago

Tiny Kox?

Citizen Diversity
Citizen Diversity
1 month ago

Another television comedian? Could be Dutch president any time soon.

Citizen Diversity
Citizen Diversity
1 month ago

Wasn’t Zelensky first elected as a populist to stop corruption in his country and find a peaceful settlement with Russia? Hadn’t his popularity crashed before the Russian invasion?
Wanting to be president of Ukraine at this juncture must be even more undesirable than being leader of the Tory government. Though there’s more chance that a Ukrainian president will be the saviour of his (or her) country than there is of the Tory leader saving his political party from extinction.
The only other possibilities for a Ukrainian president are (a) becoming the most hated person in Ukrainian history for eventually having to sign a peace treaty with Russia, (b) fleeing to the USA after a military defeat, (c) being captured by the Russians and being put on trial, or (d) passing away peacefully in old age while still president and leaving the other outcomes to someone else.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
1 month ago

Say it louder for the Zelensky fan boys, especially the ones over here who keep talking about “democracy, democracy” when speaking of a regime that is anything but.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
1 month ago

The corrupt, drug fuelled dictator is completely illegitimate now. I fear he is not long for this world.