Volodymyr Zelensky: the battle for legitimacy has been won

Volodymyr Zelensky: the battle for legitimacy has been won

On May 20, 2019, Volodymyr Zelensky’s five-year term as President of Ukraine officially began. According to the Constitution, the next presidential election was supposed to take place on March 31, 2024, but Russia’s full-scale invasion pushed this issue far into the background before it returned to the Ukrainian media space only after a series of statements voiced by Western politicians. 

In May 2023, PACE President Tiny Kox said Ukraine should organize elections despite the ongoing war, referring to the statute of the Council of Europe. Then, in August, U.S. GOP Senator Lindsey Graham suggested that free and fair elections be held in this country, even as it is being attacked.

Volodymyr Zelensky and Lindsey Graham, Kyiv, March 2024

However, neither these statements nor Kyiv's decision to postpone the elections caused a particular public stir in Ukraine. According to the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology (KIIS), in September 2023, more than 80% of citizens believed it was not the right time for elections. Civil society shared the same opinion: more than 100 NGOs and movements signed the relevant statement on the Civil Network OPORA platform. A consensus was also formed among political forces: in November 2023, heads of parliamentary factions, including opposition, signed a memorandum agreeing that free and fair national elections should be held in the post-war period.

Objective impediments

What is the reason for this consensus? Security and access issues were and remain the most acute problems. National elections would require thousands of polling stations where millions of voters would come on ballot day. But it was impossible to completely eliminate the threat of Russian missile terror in 2023, and the situation hasn’t changed since then: in March 2024 alone, Russia launched more than 400 missiles, more than 600 kamikaze UAVs, and more than 3,000 aerial guided bombs over Ukraine. It is extremely difficult to ensure proper electoral procedures in such conditions, and in the front-line strip, which stretches from Chernihiv to Odesa, it is as impossible and endeavor as one can imagine. In addition, about 7 million adult Ukrainians are currently scattered around the world, and it would be extremely difficult to make sure they are able to vote, not to mention citizens who remain under temporary Russian occupation.

Consequences of the Russian shelling of Kherson, May 2024

Ukraine's great political advantage is that the country entered the big war being led by a government formed as a result of undoubtedly transparent elections, in which Volodymyr Zelensky sealed support from 73% of voters, and his Servant of the People party formed a convincing parliamentary majority. This made Ukrainian society invulnerable to Russian speculation claiming that the "Nazis" allegedly "seized power" in the country.

It is quite obvious that, due to the said circumstances, elections amid a full-scale war would be held in conditions of low turnout and in violation of some formal requirements. Needless to say, this could undermine confidence in the state leadership, regardless of the outcome of the vote. In addition, elections imply potential reshuffles in top offices. In the conditions of war, when the time for making vital decisions is often measured not even in weeks but in days and hours, this is fraught with great risks.

In addition, according to the estimates from the Central Election Commission of Ukraine, the presidential elections would cost the country UAH 5.4 billion. In the conditions of significant economic challenges caused by the war, such expenses would not only become a burden on treasury but would also cause public outrage. Demands to redirect as many funds as possible from state and local budgets to defense needs have been heard from the public since February 2022, and it is unlikely that the formal end of the current president’s term in office would be a sufficient argument in favor of multibillion-dollar election costs.

"Money for the AFU" civil protest under the KCSA in Kyiv, February 3, 2024. Photo: Anna Sergiets/Suspilne.media

After all, the postponement of presidential elections amid the raging war is not only legally possible, but also directly prescribed by Article 19 of the Law on the legal regime of martial law. Of course, the Verkhovna Rada has the authority to adopt legislative changes, but currently there is no reason to do so: according to Article 64 of the Constitution, voting rights are not among those that shall not be restricted amid war or emergency.

"Racing" with the enemy

It would seem that the discussion about the presidential elections in Ukraine has long been over: the elections are not on time, and Zelensky's legitimacy is beyond doubt. According to the sociological surveys, Ukrainians have not changed their opinion on this issue, and the consensus of political forces and civil society remains unbroken. The West also agreed with this decision. For example, during his visit to Kyiv on May 14, 2024, U.S. State Secretary Antony Blinken stated the following:

‘’For decades, the United States and Europe have helped you build these democratic pillars from the bottom up. And we will continue to support you in accelerating these reforms. That is why we are working with the government and civil society groups to strengthen Ukraine's electoral infrastructure. Thus, as soon as Ukrainians agree that the conditions allow, all Ukrainians - all Ukrainians, including those displaced by Russian aggression - will be able to exercise their right to vote.’’

Dmytro Kuleba and Antony Blinken in Kyiv, May 2024

Moscow remains the only force that subornly pushes the topic of Ukrainian elections. At least since last November, an aggressive propaganda campaign has been launched against Ukraine, designed to undermine the authority of the government in Kyiv. One of the primary ideas that Russian intelligence is attempting to convey to Ukrainians is that Zelensky will lose his legitimacy as president at the conclusion of his five-year term, that is, after May 20, 2024. As the date approaches, the propaganda becomes more and more aggressive, which is apparently part of a complex operation to destabilize Ukraine, colloquially known as "Maidan-3", of which Ukrainian intelligence warned back in February 2024.

The main messages spread by Russian propaganda have remained unchanged for months. Firstly, Moscow is manipulating Ukraine's commitment to democracy: they claim Zelensky is a usurper who took advantage of the war to establish an authoritarian regime. Secondly, propaganda speculates on war fatigue: it is alleged that Zelensky will fight "to the last Ukrainian" in order to stay in power for as long as possible. Thirdly, propaganda appeals to emotions, portraying Zelensky as traitor to Ukraine, corrupt official who must be removed from power immediately despite legal prescriptions and war circumstances.

Thus, all narrative tracks boil down to one slogan: "Zelensky out!". Obviously, the ultimate task of Russian intelligence is to incite Ukrainians to riot, which will at least temporarily sow chaos in the country’s rear. The minimum task is to intensify public discontent and focus it on the president in order to undermine his legitimacy in people’s eyes.

Zelensky in a working trip to the Kharkiv region, April 2024.

Therefore, today Zelensky, like five years ago, is forced to take part in bizarre "races", competing for the support of Ukrainians – not with his political rivals, but with Russia’s giant propaganda machine. However, it seems that this battle was won by Zelensky even before it began. Despite all the extreme challenges of wartime, the Ukrainians do not fall for Russian disinformation. According to the survey run by the Sociological Group Rating on behalf of the International Republican Institute’s Centre for Insights in Survey Research in February 2024, the majority of Ukrainians (67%) do not support the idea of ​​holding presidential elections amid war. According to KIIS, 69% of citizens believe Zelensky should retain his position until martial law is recalled.

Along with this, the war never led to the Ukrainians developing an authoritarian syndrome. On the contrary, as the KIIS poll shows, democracy has become even more attractive in the eyes of the general public. In October 2020, 54% of respondents believed that having a strong leader is more important for Ukraine than democracy (31% of respondents held the opposite view), and in December 2023 the tables turned: 59% claimed that a democratic system is more important than a strong leader (32% thought otherwise). This means that, despite the limitations of wartime, Ukraine is only affirming its values, and the postponement of the presidential elections is not about dysfunctional democracy, it’s only about temporary restrictions caused by the war.

Center for Strategic Communication and Information Security

While citing and using any materials on the Internet, links to the website ukrinform.net not lower than the first paragraph are mandatory. In addition, citing the translated materials of foreign media outlets is possible only if there is a link to the website ukrinform.net and the website of a foreign media outlet. Materials marked as "Advertisement" or with a disclaimer reading "The material has been posted in accordance with Part 3 of Article 9 of the Law of Ukraine "On Advertising" No. 270/96-VR of July 3, 1996 and the Law of Ukraine "On the Media" No. 2849-Х of March 31, 2023 and on the basis of an agreement/invoice.

© 2015-2024 Ukrinform. All rights reserved.

Extended searchHide extended search
By period: