Despite expiry of tenure Zelensky continues presidency

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Volodymyr Zelensky, Zelensky, Ukraine

As of May 20, something significant has changed for Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky. His five-year presidential term, for which he was elected in 2019, has officially ended. Despite this, Zelensky remains in office without having faced new elections. Critics within Ukraine argue that he is now illegitimate in a strict constitutional sense, essentially labeling him a usurper. However, his supporters, including many in the West, insist that Zelensky legally remains president under martial law.

According to the Ukrainian constitution, presidential elections can be held during wartime, unlike parliamentary elections which are explicitly ruled out. Ukrainian experts have explained in national media that even though a lack of clarity would require amendments, it is feasible. As recently as October, the New York Times acknowledged this. At that time, Zelensky had not ruled out elections, and U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham was vocally demanding them.

Conducting wartime elections in Ukraine poses practical challenges, but these could have been overcome. Back in October, Zelensky himself mentioned that online voting was a possibility. Western media outlets, including the BBC, which now claim that Zelensky had no legal or practical option for re-election, are misinforming their audiences by simply repeating the regime’s current talking points. This is not the first time such narratives have emerged.

The legal legitimacy of a president is crucial, especially one as high-handed and authoritarian as Zelensky has been for years, particularly since the escalation of the war in February 2022. Yet, more important are the political implications and effects of Zelensky’s transition to past-due-date status. Zelensky is evading the basic accountability of an election, which would inevitably increase public scrutiny of his record. More disturbing is seeing one of his closest associates turn unquestioning compliance with this move into a de facto loyalty test, complete with ominous threats. Ruslan Stefanchuk, the speaker of the Ukrainian parliament and a key figure in Zelensky’s “Servant of the People” party, has reportedly called all those who doubt the president’s continuing legitimacy “enemies of the people” and “political lice.”

This rhetoric is reminiscent of Stalinism, coming with the usual tired smears. Anyone who dares to question the Zelensky regime is routinely accused of doing so at the behest of Russian agitators. It’s hard to believe that in Zelensky’s post-“Revolution of Dignity” and “free world” showcase Ukraine, citizens could genuinely disagree with their superiors. Verbal brutality of the kind displayed by Stefanchuk is particularly intriguing because a reasonably reliable and recent (February) poll shows that almost 70% of Ukrainians agree that Zelensky should remain president until “the end of the state of war.” For better or worse, Zelensky’s decision to avoid elections is not unpopular.

However, a closer look at the same poll reveals why Zelensky’s supporters are so touchy and aggressive. Widespread consent for postponing presidential elections does not translate into the same level of popularity for Zelensky personally or for his regime. For instance, in December 2023, 34% of respondents believed that he should not stand for another election whenever they occur. By February of this year, that share had risen to 43%. Clearly, many Ukrainians believe that this is not the right time for presidential elections, yet they also think Zelensky should not be a candidate again, indicating dissatisfaction with his rule despite their agreement on postponing elections.

This reflects a long-term decline in Zelensky’s popularity. Initially, the war’s escalation in February 2022 boosted his ratings from 37% to a staggering 90%, a classic wartime rally-around-the-leader effect. Yet, by February this year, following the bloody and costly failure of Ukraine’s 2023 summer counteroffensive and the de facto sacking of the popular commander-in-chief and Zelensky rival Valery Zaluzhny, the president’s ratings had fallen to 60%.

Trust in the Zelensky regime and its policies has similarly deteriorated. In February, Ukrainian pollsters found that, for the first time during the war, a majority of Ukrainians believed the country was moving in the wrong direction. The situation in February, although far from good, was better than it is now. A highly unpopular and divisive mobilization law had not even been passed yet. This law is now being enforced against the backdrop of an increasingly desperate fight on crumbling frontlines. It is safe to assume that Zelensky’s standing and that of his regime have only declined further.

Why has this decline occurred? Zelensky has found multiple ways to undermine himself. He has adopted punishing domestic policies of a generally rapacious neoliberal kind, stifled politics and the media, and set himself up as a merciless national recruiting sergeant forcing more unwilling Ukrainians into a proxy war for the West. However, the deepest cause of his decline is that Zelensky is not winning his war. He is imposing ever-growing sacrifices on his people but not achieving victory. Ukraine’s situation is only worsening.

The post-February-2022 war could have been entirely avoided if Zelensky had kept his one clear 2019 election promise: to pursue a negotiated compromise earnestly. The framework for such a policy existed; its name was Minsk II. Instead of using it, Zelensky, his team, and his Western backers decided to stall and deceive systematically to arm for a larger war. This is what they got. Even after that, there was a last chance, no longer to prevent the war but to end it quickly by finally coming to a mutually acceptable compromise. Such a settlement was almost achieved in the spring of 2022 but was abandoned because Zelensky chose to listen to the West again.

Since then, he has only become more intransigent. The Zelensky we see now is a man who wants to escape defeat by escalating the war to an open clash between NATO and Russia. The essence of his strategy is to make this war go global. Ironically, his endless doubling-down has secured his position and power. It may be counter-intuitive, but Zelensky’s recipe for survival has boiled down to “the worse, the better,” a phrase often attributed to Lenin.

Against this backdrop, the most crucial point about Zelensky skirting an election is not whether he is legitimate but that this is just one more stage in his strange double trend. His position is steadily weakening, and his policies are a bloody dead end for his country and its people, yet he cannot consider a genuine change of course. Zelensky, the former comedian, has become a desperate high-stakes gambler, locking himself and his country into a devastating sequence of losing while constantly raising the stakes. His most urgent remaining ambition is to draw more of the world into this vortex. Zelensky should never have been president, and it is high time he ceases to be one. Ironically, since he probably would not have been ousted in elections, there is little need to regret their loss.

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