Volodymyr Zelenskyy: the battle for legitimacy has been won

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On May 20, 2019, the five-year term of Volodymyr Zelenskyy as the President of Ukraine officially began. According to the Constitution, the next presidential election was supposed to take place on March 31, 2024, but the full-scale invasion of Russia pushed this issue far into the background, and it returned to the Ukrainian public space only after a series of statements from the West. Thus, in May 2023, PACE President Tiny Kox said that Ukraine should organize elections despite the war, referring to the statute of the Council of Europe, and in August, U.S. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham expressed his wish that “free and fair elections be held in this country, even during the attack on her.”

Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Lindsey Graham, Kyiv, March 2024

However, neither these statements nor Kyiv’s decision to postpone the elections, caused a particular resonance in Ukrainian society. According to the data of the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology (KIIS), in September 2023, more than 80% of citizens believed that it was not the right time for the election. Civil society held the same opinion: for example, more than 100 public organizations and movements signed the relevant statement of the Civil Network OPORA. A consensus was also formed among the political forces: in November 2023, the heads of parliamentary factions, including the opposition, signed a memorandum in which they agreed that free and fair national elections should be held already after the war and the end of martial law.

Objective impediments

What is the reason for this consensus? Security and access issues were and remain the most acute problems. National elections have thousands of polling stations, which must be visited by millions of voters on voting day. But it was impossible to completely eliminate the threat of Russian missile terror neither in 2023 nor now: in March 2024 alone, Russia launched more than 400 missiles, more than 600 attack UAVs and more than 3,000 guided aerial bombs over Ukraine. It is extremely difficult to ensure proper observance of electoral procedures in such conditions, and in the front-line strip, which stretched from Chernihiv to Odesa, it is impossible at all. In addition, about 7 million adult Ukrainians are currently scattered around the world, and it would be extremely difficult to organize their voting, not to mention the involvement of citizens who find themselves in temporary occupation.

Consequences of the Russian shelling of Kherson, May 2024

Ukraine’s great political advantage is that the country entered the great war led by a government formed as a result of undoubtedly transparent elections, in which Volodymyr Zelenskyy received the support of 73% of voters, and his Servant of the People party formed a convincing parliamentary majority. This made Ukrainian society invulnerable to Russian speculation about the “Nazis” who allegedly “seized power” in the country.

It is quite obvious that, due to the above-mentioned circumstances, elections during 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 are potential reshuffles in the highest echelons of government. 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 calculations of the Central Election Commission of Ukraine, the presidential elections would cost 5.4 billion hryvnias. In the conditions of significant economic difficulties caused by the war, such expenses would not only become a burden on the state treasury but would also cause a negative reaction from the citizens. Demands to redirect as many funds as possible from the state and local budgets to defence needs have been heard from the public since February 2022, and it is unlikely that the formal end of the current president’s term of office would be a sufficient argument in favour of multibillion-dollar expenses for holding elections.

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

After all, the postponement of presidential elections in a war situation is not only legally possible, but also directly prescribed by Article 19 of the Law “On legal regime of martial law”. Of course, the Verkhovna Rada has the authority to make changes to the current legislation, but currently there is no reason for this: according to Article 64 of the Constitution of Ukraine, the voting rights of citizens do not belong to those that cannot be restricted during a state of 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 Zelenskyy’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 does not give rest to the topic of the Ukrainian elections. At least since last November, an aggressive propaganda campaign has been launched against Ukraine, designed to undermine the authority of the central government. One of the primary ideas that the Russian special services are attempting to convey to Ukrainians is that Zelenskyy will lose his legitimacy as president at the conclusion of his five-year term, i.e., after May 20, 2024. As this date approaches, the propaganda becomes more and more aggressive, which is apparently part of a complex operation to destabilize Ukraine known as “Maidan-3”, about which Ukrainian intelligence warned back in February 2024.

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

Thus, all narrative tracks boil down to one slogan: “Zelenskyy out!”. Obviously, the maximum task of the Russian special services is to incite Ukrainians to riot, which will at least temporarily sow chaos in the rear. The minimum task is to intensify the dissatisfaction of Ukrainians and focus it on the president in order to undermine his legitimacy in the eyes of citizens.

Zelenskyy in a working trip to the Kharkiv region, April 2024

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

Along with this, the war did not cause the Ukrainians to develop an authoritarian syndrome. On the contrary, as the KIIS survey shows, democracy has become even more attractive in the eyes of society. If 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 opinion), then in December 2023 the picture became the opposite: 59% claimed that a democratic system is more important than a strong leader (32% thought otherwise). And this means that despite the limitations of wartime, Ukraine is only affirming its values, and the postponement of the presidential elections is not a dysfunction of democracy, but only temporary and forced restrictions caused by the war.

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