From Nezavisimaya gazeta, Nov. 9, 2023, p. 2. Complete text:)
Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky has said that it is impossible to hold an election for head of state under martial law. He also called for not bringing political division into society. Martial law in Ukraine has been extended until February 2024. The election was scheduled to be held in March, and now it is unlikely to take place on time.
Elections really don’t take place under martial law. We can say that Zelensky simply stated the obvious. The armed conflict between Moscow and Kiev has been going on for more than a year and a half. Neither side is compromising; everyone insists on achieving their stated goals. It is hardly realistic in the coming months that conditions will suddenly be created in which it will be possible to lift the state of martial law. All the more so because for Kiev such conditions are victory in the conflict and the return of territory. The Zelensky administration claims that Kiev would not be satisfied with a state of frozen conflict.
Conditional deadlines (March 2024) are named because, among other things, the Ukrainian authorities cannot deprive their citizens, the voters, of hopes for a normal life. Martial law is also not extended indefinitely – which would more accurately correspond to the realities on the ground – but for several months. The election date is a beacon of normalization. It’s something out of the realm of political psychology. Deadlines can be pushed back, but the light at the end of the tunnel must be visible.
By canceling the election without dates or deadlines, Vladimir Zelensky will hardly score political points. It is difficult to earn them at all in a protracted armed conflict. When such a conflict begins, the team in power is popular more often than not. It enjoys the benefit of consolidation and patriotic sentiment; its narrative dominates while real political life is frozen. This is exactly what happened with Zelensky – the effect of forced rallying around a legitimate, i.e., elected, leader.
A short-term conflict does not have time to become the “new normal.” It’s a chaotic time when people choose with their hearts, mostly emotionally. It is not so important whether the politician has achieved loudly declared goals in this short time, such as the return of territories or victory as such. What matters is that he managed collective emotions and did the right (often symbolic) things.
Once the conflict is prolonged, this mechanism of popularity without additional measures gradually ceases to work. Assuming (purely theoretically) that Ukraine had held a [presidential] election in the summer of 2022, Zelensky would simply have had no competitors. Now, competition – and quite successful competition – is possible. When conflict becomes the disturbing norm, citizens inevitably question the politician in power. They check reality against his promises. These promises are often made on a wave of emotion; how to fulfill them is unclear.
When the president starts reminding people about the impossibility of elections under such conditions, it does not sound at all like a reminder of the obvious. It seems like a fear of losing. Yes, under the current circumstances, the president of Ukraine has enough resources and leverage to stay in power, even if the mechanism of legitimization is launched. But elections recreate a normal political field. There is room for doubt in it. Alternative suggestions may be openly voiced. They are already being heard: Some presidential contenders are proposing abandoning the Donetsk Basin and moving toward NATO.
In an election, it may turn out that such proposals are more in line with people’s sentiments. Zelensky, on the other hand, will be forced to remain in his uncompromising position, defending it using mostly emotional arguments, without referring to real successes.