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Off-Road Rally: How to meet the growing demand for political renewal in Ukraine when holding elections is impossible?

The 'rally around the flag' effect, the impressive consolidation of Ukrainian society in the face of Russian aggression, is predictably showing signs of erosion two years into the war. The level of trust in President Zelensky and other top-tier Ukrainian politicians is decreasing, and the presidential party is losing ground in the Ukrainian parliament. The demand for a reconfiguration of political forces is growing, as is dissatisfaction with corruption, for which the incumbent authorities are increasingly being held responsible. Paradoxically, the political process in Ukraine is under pressure from two threats: the excessive concentration of executive power in the hands of the presidential administration, facilitated by the wartime situation and the absence of elections, and, conversely, the erosion of power alongside the oligarchy’s growing influence, which is being channelled through the parliament. At the same time, both experts and residents of the country are convinced that it is impossible to hold legitimate elections under martial law. How can you ensure the normalisation of democratic processes during a protracted war? According to experts, this requires a return to an agenda of decisive political and social reforms that would bring Ukraine closer to EU standards while simultaneously infusing political dynamics with new content.

The rally is ending

For over a year and a half, Ukrainian society has demonstrated the highest level of cohesion in the face of Russian aggression, rallying around the president, government, and army, as well as sharing a common understanding of the goals of the defensive war. In May 2022, when it was already obvious that the war would not end in the next few months, Vladimir Zelensky's approval rating was an astounding 90%; last December, during the war's challenging positional phase, it remained at 84%. Even at the end of more than a year of war, half of the country's residents polled by sociologists said that 'events in Ukraine are heading in the right direction’. However, this effect, which political analysts call the 'rally around the flag', as previously reported by Re:Russia, has shown predictable signs of erosion since the beginning of autumn 2023. 

On the one hand, in September 2023, according to Gallup, two-thirds of Ukrainians still believed that they should continue fighting until complete victory, defined as a return to the borders of 1991. Only 31% of respondents were in favour of negotiations and a ceasefire; and according to the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology (KIIS), only 21% of those surveyed in October 2023 were ready to make territorial concessions, even among those who believe Russia's military potential to be high. On the other hand, the ratings of the president and the Ukrainian authorities as a whole began to decline, war fatigue became more palpable and there was a growing demand for a renewed political agenda.

In December 2023, President Zelensky's trust rating reached its lowest point since the beginning of the war, standing at 62%, according to KIIS. The trust-distrust balance for Zelensky was +80% in December 2022, but by the end of 2023, it had fallen to +42%. However, the decline is not limited to the president. Although Vladimir Zelensky is still the most popular politician in the country (77%), according to KIIS, his lead over other public leaders is not as impressive today as it was before. But the latter are also experiencing an erosion of trust: trust in public figure and philanthropist Serhiy Pritula (trusted by 69% of respondents) fell by 5 percentage points compared to 2022, while the mayor of Kyiv Vitaliy Klitschko (trusted by 52%) has seen trust in him fall by 22 percentage points. The only figure among the top ten popular Ukrainian politicians who managed to increase his rating is the main opponent of the ruling political force in Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko (16% in the middle of 2022 up to 27% in December 2023).

By December 2023, according to the same KIIS data, the share of Ukrainians who believe that things in the country are heading in the right direction has dropped to 54%, down from 60% in October 2023. Although the level of support for the incumbent authorities remains higher than it was before the war in November 2021, it has also significantly decreased. According to the Institute of Sociology of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, in May 2022, 54% of respondents answered that 'the authorities are coping with almost all their duties'. By December 2022 the share of such respondents was 41%, and in June 2023 it had dropped to 20%. Meanwhile, the share of those who believe that 'the authorities are not doing nearly enough' increased from 4% in May 2022 to 18% in June 2023. 

The KIIS data also shows an increase in the number of those who are critical of domestic policy. Thus, the overwhelming majority of Ukrainians (68%) in May 2022 believed that it is necessary to postpone disputes and criticism of the authorities, while a quarter of the population answered that 'it is necessary to criticise the authorities now'. However, by October 2023, this ratio had completely reversed: 70% believed that it was right to criticise erroneous actions of the authorities and 25% believed that it is not the time for disputes and criticism. 

This growing criticism is most focused on the issue of corruption. Zelensky’s government has lost its immunity to corruption. More than half of those surveyed stated the need for swift and decisive punishment of corrupt officials, 'even if it violates the laws'.

The erosion of support fuels conflicts and disputes within the government, which are gradually turning from managerial to political (most notably the alleged conflict between Zelensky and Commander-in-Chief Valeriy Zaluzhny). Failures on the frontline and weakening international support for Ukraine increasingly raise the question of who will be held responsible for the deteriorating situation. Although, according to KIIS, 58% of respondents believe that Ukraine should continue to fight even in the face of a significant reduction in Western assistance, on the eve of the second anniversary of the war and in the face of its new challenges, the political unity of Ukrainian society appears much more precarious.

Non-electoral politics

Elections cannot take place in wartime — there are numerous arguments as to why conducting them is challenging, impossible, and even harmful. This view is fully shared by Ukrainian society (in a late 2023 poll, 81% of those surveyed were in favour of postponing elections). However, the demand for elite rotation and a more natural political process is growing. Moreover, the political process in Ukraine is by no means frozen, but remains dynamic and tense, notes Andrew Wilson, an expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR).

The protracted war and the increasing criticism of the authorities have already influenced the actual distribution of political forces. The presidential party ‘Servant of the People’, which won 254 of the 450 seats in the Verkhovna Rada in the 2019 elections, is losing its overwhelming majority: deputies are changing factional affiliation or are more inclined to express loyalty to the financial-industrial groups that may be behind them. The faction now has 235 members. This, in turn, forces the president and the government to rely on a coalition of parties, including the small parliamentary groups ‘For the Future’ (close to oligarch Ihor Kolomoyskyi) and ‘Trust’ (a satellite of Servant of the People). 

In the conditions of war, such dilution of the presidential majority affects the effectiveness of decision-making and conflicts within the political elite. For example, the presidential office has repeatedly disagreed with Mayor Klitschko, and Zelensky has uneasy relations with the party ‘Voice’ led by musician Svyatoslav Vakarchuk, who used to be an ally of Servants of the People. Additionally, conflict between the president and the former formal leader of Servant of the People and speaker of the Verkhovna Rada, Dmytro Razumkov, further contribute to the difficult political dynamics.

Paradoxically, the political process in Ukraine is under pressure from two threats: the excessive concentration of executive power in the hands of the presidential administration, facilitated by the wartime situation and the absence of elections, and conversely, the dilution of power as a result of the growing significance of the oligarchy, which strongly influenced Ukrainian politics before the war. Both trends are being intensified by the fact that changes in public sentiment and in the actual balance of power are not being reflected in electoral processes. Citizens do not have the opportunity to participate in ongoing changes within legal procedures.

Meanwhile, the demand for a reconfiguration of the political field is growing. This demand seems not only to be a natural manifestation of the political cycle, but also a reflection of the significant democratic potential of Ukrainian society. At the end of 2023, polls recorded a demand for a 'government of national unity'. According to KIIS, 37% of Ukrainians have a favourable view of the idea of forming such a government based on the four main parliamentary parties (including ‘European Solidarity’), 38% are neutral, and 19% have a negative view of this.

How can this demand for change in Ukrainian politics be addressed, when holding elections is impossible? Andrew Wilson argues that a solution could be the implementation, under EU patronage, of vigorous political reforms that would bring Ukrainian state standards closer to the EU's institutional requirements. Such reforms should cover several areas, including the fight against corruption, and primarily involve the reform of the law enforcement and judicial systems, effective checks on the power of the presidential office, and the struggle against oligarchic influence. This could be achieved through reforms to antimonopoly legislation and the promotion of competition. Ultimately, it is not about the elections themselves, but about the longstanding problems of Ukrainian society and statehood. Efforts to solve these issues during the war and in the absence of elections have been stalled. But, elections are merely a tool to force politicians in peacetime to implement reforms that society is waiting for.