The challenges of holding a vote in wartime are both small and big—and often unexpected.
As discussions heat up over whether Ukraine should hold elections in wartime, a selection of Ukrainian officials, civil society activists, members of parliament, and business representatives have already started brainstorming the country’s next vote. “It’s a lot of discussions, several working groups where we try to find solutions and make recommendations,” said Olha Aivazovska, the head of the board of the Ukrainian election-monitoring NGO Opora.
These early considerations, Aivazovska and a Ukrainian parliamentarian involved told Foreign Policy, are focused on postwar elections; there are no plans to hold elections amid active hostilities, they said. The martial law declared in the country in the early hours of the Russian invasion prohibits authorities from holding elections, while the draft of the 2024 state budget approved by the government in September does not earmark any funds for elections.
In peacetime, Ukraine’s political scene would have been busy with campaigning for the parliamentary elections, initially planned for this October, while the first round of the next presidential elections should have been held in March 2024. Facing calls from Western representatives on the importance of organizing elections even in wartime, Ukrainian officials have walked a fine line, attempting to assure Western partners of their desire to hold elections as soon as possible while emphasizing that “as soon as possible” could still be a long time away. Following an Aug. 23 visit to Kyiv, U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham told reporters that he had urged Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to hold an election next year. “I want to see this country have a free and fair election even while it is under assault,” he said.
“I am ready for the elections,” Zelensky told a select crowd of Western and Ukrainian officials, civil society activists, businesspeople, and others gathered at the Yalta European Strategy forum in Kyiv on Sept. 8.
“I mean, we’re ready if it is necessary,” he added, before going down the list of challenges that would make such an election especially difficult: how to make it possible for soldiers to vote and allow international observers in front-line areas, how to organize elections in countries where millions of Ukrainians are now living as refugees, or what to do with Ukrainians living in territories under Russian occupation. “There are many questions that no one has answered today, and frankly, no one has worked on them because we have a different priority—we need to liberate our land and then talk about elections,” Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal declared in a press conference last month.
From a concrete 10-story, Soviet-era building, the country’s Central Election Commission (CEC) launched three working groups in early March to tackle the topic of postwar elections. Each group—made up of about 40 electoral commission officials, civil society representatives, MPs, officials from other ministries, and private companies—deals with one specific challenge the country is likely to face in its first elections following the Russian invasion. These include holding elections abroad; updating the national electoral register; and dealing with the organizational challenges of the first postwar election.
“We are keenly aware that organizing an election at the end of the war, after our victory, will be a huge challenge,” said Serhiy Postiviy, a member of a working group focused on the organization of elections abroad. “We’ve been looking at other countries’ experience, and it’s almost impossible to find one with a more complicated situation. … We’ve talked about postwar elections with colleagues from the election commission in Bosnia-Herzegovina for example, and it is just a completely different scale.” (About 3 million people were eligible to vote in the 1996 election in Bosnia-Herzegovina, while more than 18 million Ukrainians took part in the 2019 presidential elections.) The working groups will soon send their first batch of recommendations to Ukraine’s parliament.
The challenges, small and big, are multifaceted and sometimes unexpected. Holding elections in European countries where, according to the United Nations, close to 6 million Ukrainian refugees have been living since the beginning of the Russian invasion will require complex bilateral agreements in order to open hundreds of polling stations across the continent. According to a CEC document seen by Foreign Policy, the number of Ukrainian voters jumped in France from 3,705 before the Russian invasion to 97,575 today, with 70 percent of those planning to participate in the next election. Ukraine had, before the war, just one polling station in the country’s embassy in Paris, as the current legislation only allows for polling stations to be set up in Ukrainian diplomatic buildings. Holding elections outside of diplomatic compounds raises its own issues, as the foreign country will have to take some responsibility in the electoral process. “What happens if someone tries to fraud or to bribe someone in a vote in a foreign country? Who will investigate this?” Aivazovska asked.
Postiviy’s working group has also been discussing smaller issues, such as the possibility of replacing the traditional Ukrainian ballot—a long, unwieldy piece of paper that could be up to 30 inches long after listing all the candidates—with a smaller and cheaper alternative that would be easier to ship abroad. “But some MPs disagree. They think it might confuse the voter,” he said.
Another issue is the updating of the electoral register, which was frozen at the beginning of the Russian invasion and is now desperately out of date as millions of Ukrainians fled abroad, were displaced inside Ukraine, or died while living in territories under Russian occupation. One working group is now considering introducing an “active registration” system that would allow people to easily fill a form specifying their current whereabouts. Cybersecurity, electronic voting based on the examples of Estonia or Switzerland, and the introduction of postal voting are also being considered, though the low trust that the latter two enjoy in Ukraine means it is unlikely they will be introduced soon.
And while most of the issues currently being debated by the working groups would also apply to elections held in wartime, the ease with which Russia could disrupt the process makes officials skeptical about holding elections in the short term. “Just imagine this: A monthslong electoral campaign has successfully unfolded, and we reach election day. Then, just as people prepare to vote, three or four Russian bombers take off from an airfield. Air raid alarms are triggered all over Ukraine. What do we do? What if it lasts several days?” Postiviy said.
Opposition to the idea of holding elections in the near future enjoys broad support among civil society and across party lines. On Sept. 18, Opora and more than a hundred other Ukrainian NGOs signed an appeal claiming an election during the “full-scale war” would “lead to the loss of legitimacy for both the electoral process and elected bodies” as the “state cannot guarantee an environment where electoral process participants can freely and fully express their views and will.” Ukrainian politician and comedian Serhiy Prytula, who was before the Russian invasion a member of the Holos opposition party, said on Sept. 25 that the idea of holding elections during wartime was the “ultimate absurdity.”
“Elections and democracy are about predictability, so even something like the predictability of the front line has to be on the table,” Aivazovska said. “If the war keeps going, if the front line is frozen or becomes predictable … maybe we’ll be able to talk about starting the process.” For now, however, few in Ukraine believe this time is likely to come soon.
Fabrice Deprez is a French freelance journalist based in Kyiv, Ukraine. Twitter: @fabrice_deprez