Guest Editorials, Opinion

Ukraine should postpone election

If these were normal times, Ukraine would be preparing to hold presidential elections in March. But with war raging and parts of the country under Russian occupation, that looks increasingly infeasible. Delaying the vote makes sense — so long as the government commits to strengthening democracy in the meantime.

The practical challenges of holding an election in wartime are immense. Even if campaigning were possible, the mere act of voting could pose unacceptable risks. Russian forces have no qualms about attacking civilian infrastructure, and landmines make travel to polling booths dangerous. And securing election documents and transporting them to voting stations would strain scarce military resources.

It’s also doubtful that the electorate would be truly representative. Of the estimated 32 million eligible voters who were in Ukraine before the war, as many as a quarter are now abroad and more than 20% of the country’s population are thought to be living in territories occupied by Russian forces.

Elections in such circumstances don’t necessarily strengthen democracy. Ukrainians themselves aren’t exactly clamoring for a vote: An October poll showed 81% of them think elections should be held only after the war is over, with only 16% wanting the vote schedule upheld.

For all these reasons, postponing the election is the right thing to do. Yet Zelenskyy must ensure that such a measure is temporary. An indefinite delay would embolden detractors in the West who want to cut off support for Kyiv. And it would undermine, if only superficially, the contrast between democratic Ukraine and Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

In the absence of elections, Ukrainian officials need to reinforce their commitment to democratic values and strengthen the institutions that uphold them. Ukraine’s parliament should put measures in place to ensure that free and competitive elections can be held as soon as practicable after the war, allow space for new political voices and update voting mechanisms.

The government should also encourage wider debate and expand press freedoms. The country’s oligarch-owned media outlets agreed to consolidate to provide 24/7 broadcasts and counter Russian disinformation as the invasion unfolded. It’s harder to justify that now.

Ultimately, the biggest threat to Ukraine’s democratic future (outside Russian missiles) is not a temporary absence of elections, but the corrosive effect of corruption. The country has made some progress in addressing the problem, including measures that require more transparency in government. Parliament recently strengthened anti-money-laundering efforts. Zelenskyy’s tough words on the subject and a few high-profile dismissals have set the right tone. But further reforms are needed to bolster the country’s judiciary, prosecute corruption offenses and end oligarchic control of key industries, such as energy and mining. The European Union and the U.S. should continue to press Ukraine on these issues while maintaining strong support for its war effort.

This editorial first appeared in Bloomberg Opinion. This commentary should be considered another point of view and not necessarily the opinion or editorial policy of The Dominion Post.