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Elections in Ukraine will be held in 2024 only if martial law is ended by then, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in an interview with the BBC on June 22.

Zelenskyy emphasized that according to the Ukrainian constitution, no elections could be held in the country while martial law remains in effect. - Ukraine to hold elections after war ends, says Zelenskyy

Suspending elections is a common tactic of dictators (or aspiring ones). Would simply not holding an election in 2024 be enough to consider a political leader as a dictator by international law or standards, or do they need to do more than that to earn that moniker?

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    Voting to re-open - Suspension of elections is often a common tactic of dictators, so the curiosity in the question is understandable to those not familiar with martial law or democracy. Reference to Zelensky (that seems to be triggerin some) can be toned down without changing the nature of the question.
    – sfxedit
    Jun 27, 2023 at 19:37
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    Vote to reopen. Elections are postponed in Ukraine and it is reasonable to ask if there's something nefarious behind it. If not here, people will have plenty of scope to find material online hinting at the worst conspiracies. Jun 27, 2023 at 20:40
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    @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica elections being delayed due to parts of the country being held by a hostile power is a sign of something nefarious?
    – Joe W
    Jun 27, 2023 at 20:47
  • @JoeW It isn't, at least according to my own answer, but it certainly can get spinned as such. Jun 27, 2023 at 20:51
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    @JoeW Let's not be willfully twisting words. People might wonder if there is nefarious intent. Some will happily oblige, ex: twitter.com/TuckerCarlson/status/1673856877841764352 Now, we can either answer the Q here - in the negative in my case, or close it and sweep it under the rug, giving the impression that there is something to hide. The fact that UA constitution provides for suspension of election if martial law means diddly: many dictatorships declare martial law and then suspend political processes. This enforcement of "right posts" orthodoxy is rather tedious, IMHO. Jun 28, 2023 at 19:30

2 Answers 2

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(Note that this answer was originally written to address the original Zelensky-centric version of this question which concerns wartime leadership and elections)

It would probably not happen, from the PoV of most of his Western backers at least. For the rest, many neutral democratic states would probably also recognize some valid grounds for delay, at least for a few years. While the pro-Russia camp will of course find reasons to prefer Russia's notoriously free and fair election processes.

It's not that difficult to see that holding national elections while 20% of the national territory is under foreign occupation, during an active hot war, makes for "special circumstances".

Though the details are scarce, the UK for example seems to have largely suspended Parliamentary elections during WW2

1935–1945 Parliament This Parliament's life was extended by annual Prolongation of Parliament Acts for the duration of the Second World War. By-elections continued to fill vacancies. An electoral truce was negotiated between the Conservative, Labour, Liberal, National Liberal and National Labour parties, and National independent MPs that they would not contest by-elections which another party held (although there were a few occasions when a National party would step aside from a vacancy in favour of a National independent, usually a government minister). However many independents stood, including some party members who disagreed with the truce.

New Zealand

A delay in elections during World War II resulted in a six-year term for the incumbent Government. The 26th Parliament was due to expire in 1941, but because of the war legislation was passed postponing the election—first by a year, and then until the war ended. Thankfully, the situation improved enough by 1943 that one could be held.

In fact, the oft-cited case that the US has never suspended Presidential elections during wartime is also often phrased to indicate that's unusual. America has never delayed a presidential election, even during war | CNN Politics

When is it democratic to postpone an election?

External wars, civil wars and violence can create situations in which human life would be at threat by an election, but they are best diagnosed as crisis postponements.

France's 3rd Republic also changed its parliamentary oversight during WW1:

Admittedly, parliamentary withdrawal was based on the hypothesis of a short war, and it was within this framework that the majority of deputies and senators accepted the “dictatorship” of the general staff. It was under these circumstances that the spirit of Sacred Union drew the two assemblies together at the beginning of the war. During the session of August 4, they voted not only their adjournment. but also the renunciation of any real control over war expenditure.

This subject, electoral suspensions in democratic countries during wars, seems sparsely covered. Possibly it is because partial loss of territory by democratic states hasn't been a very frequent occurrence: for example, most continental European democracies at war were entirely under Nazi rule during WW2, making the question moot.

A consensual limited duration suspension of some political procedures, including the postponement of elections, during a period of war and martial law doesn't necessarily alarm much and will likely get the benefit of the doubt. It has been done before by countries with proper democracies. Extended for a long duration, say 5+ years, and with evidence of significant concerns from the domestic opposition parties, that would start smelling badly.

p.s. the fact that the Ukrainian constitution stipulates suspension of elections under martial law doesn't mean all that much on its own. Look at the decades of trumped up "national emergencies" "justifying" the imposition martial law and only then the "legal" suspension of political processes, throughout the world's dictatorships.

In fact, Putin has been leveraging the "special military operation" to suppress dissent. What's different between the 2 is that a) Russia instigated the war and b) Russia's military emergency can be resolved simply by Russky Go Home. Ukraine on the other hand is stuck in an existential military emergency, not of its own choosing and is responding in a way not inconsistent with the historical responses of solid democracies.

p.p.s. As remarked in a comment, big concentrations of people out voting could easily be targeted by Russian drone/missile strikes - a strike on a restaurant in Kharkiv just killed about a dozen people 2 days ago - adding a very concern of direct physical safety to the equation.

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    It should be noted that the US itself was never under attack during WW2 which has a major impact on the ability to hold an election.
    – Joe W
    Jun 27, 2023 at 17:41
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    Alaska joined January 3rd 1959 and Hawaii joined August 21st 1959 and did not factor into the elections during WW2. Sure some of the territories it controlled got attacked during the war but none of them had a vote in the elections.
    – Joe W
    Jun 27, 2023 at 18:45
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    @Obie2.0 That's why a few years in my answer matters. If, 10 years from now, the conflict is frozen and still no elections, yes, you'd be right. Next year? Most democracies would probably not mind, unless they oppose Ukraine - see my examples. 3-4 years from now? : postponement is starting to smell bad. But you are welcome to write an answer. Jun 27, 2023 at 19:47
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    @Obie2.0: that's a reasonable argument. The counter-argument is that it's impractical to campaign and hold an election when the country is under regular attack; plus leaders don't have the time for electoral-related activities while at war. It's also about taking "reasonable" actions for a democratic state. In the UK during WW2, Parliament delayed the next election several times, but for only one year at a time, until it looked like the war was won. The UK has also delayed local elections a few times (e.g. during the pandemic) - but again, only for 1 year. Jun 28, 2023 at 10:49
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    @Obie2.0 There's also the fact that a significant portion of the electorate will be practically unable to vote due to the war. Is it "fairer" to hold an election when that portion cannot vote and then commit the whole country to thev results of the partial election, or to delay the election a few years? It's not a question that can really be answered by armchair reasoning from first principles, it's a messy horrible situation with no perfect answer. But the right people to make those kinds of calls for the people of Ukraine though are the elected government of Ukraine.
    – Ben
    Jun 29, 2023 at 12:32
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Any Ukranian political leader will be considered a dictator by the international community if:

  1. He violates the constitution of Ukraine to usurp power.
  2. He acts contrary to the expected norms of democracy (e.g. not respecting the judiciary or Parliament, using state power against political opponents, illegally using violence against political opponents. etc.).
  3. He makes the Ukranian Army totally subservient under him.
  4. He doesn't hold fair and free elections.
  5. He takes control of all Ukranian media and doesn't allow the opposition any avenues to communicate to the public.

Note that Ukraine is under Martial law due to the invasion by Russia, and certain suspension of democratic rights is considered normal under such political circumstances.

As the article you linked to points out, Ukraine's constitution says elections cannot be held when Ukraine is under Martial law. (This constitutional clause seems prudent - if an election is held under Martial law, when a President has total control of the army and the administration, doubts can be raised if the elections was fair). So Zelensky is not violating the constitution by temporarily postponing new elections. And technically, he can continue doing this till the war ends. (Ofcourse, if either Putin or Zelensky continue to use the war as an excuse to not hold elections and remain in power for an indefinite period, it could be construed as a dictatorial attempt by many).

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