Zelensky's Presidential Mandate Ended Today: Elections Postponed Due to War

Today marks the official end of Volodymyr Zelensky's presidential mandate, but elections have been postponed due to the ongoing state of war in Ukraine

by Sededin Dedovic
Zelensky's Presidential Mandate Ended Today: Elections Postponed Due to War
© Alexey Furman / Getty Images

Volodymyr Zelensky was elected president five years ago. Now there is a debate about when his term will end. Is it possible to hold elections under martial law, and what is the role of the Constitutional Court? Today (May 20, 2024) marks the formal end of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s term.

Presidential elections were supposed to be held at the end of March, but parliament postponed them due to the state of war in the country. Ukrainian society is now debating who will lead the country after Zelensky's five-year term as president ends, reports DW.

At the beginning of the year, only a few politicians and commentators dared to raise this question. At the end of February, when Zelensky was assessing the two-year war with Russia, he called attempts to question his legitimacy an "enemy narrative." "This is not the opinion of our Western partners or anyone in Ukraine; it is part of the program of the Russian Federation," he emphasized to reporters.

However, the debate did not end there.

Elections under martial law?

Most Ukrainian legal experts assert that it is quite clear that Zelensky retains his power until a new president is elected. "This is clearly stated in the Ukrainian Constitution: after the five-year term expires, from the moment of inauguration, the president's powers do not end automatically.

They only end with the inauguration of the newly elected president, i.e., after the elections," explains Andriy Mahera, a constitutional law expert from the Ukrainian Center for Political and Legal Reforms (CPLR), to DW. Currently, both presidential and parliamentary elections are banned in Ukraine, but for different reasons.

The constitution prohibits parliamentary elections, while martial law prohibits all elections.

The Ukrainian flag flies over the Verchovna Rada, the Ukrainian Parliament© Sean Gallup / Getty Images

Voluntary resignation?

Elections under martial law are prohibited not only to protect voters from danger.

"Certain constitutional rights and freedoms are also restricted, such as the right to free expression of opinion, peaceful assembly, and freedom of movement. Therefore, it is impossible to ensure the principle of universal suffrage and free elections," explains Mahera.

Similarly, in March, the Institute for Legislation, Scientific, and Legal Expertise of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine and the country's Central Election Commission expressed this view. However, the debate involves not only legal experts but also veterans of Ukrainian politics, such as Hryhoriy Omelchenko, who was a member of the parliamentary commission for drafting the constitution in the mid-1990s.

He points out that it is not an oversight that there is no direct provision for extending the president's term. On the contrary, he says, it is a conscious safeguard. In an open letter to Zelensky published in March in the newspaper "Ukraina Moloda," he nonetheless calls on the president not to "usurp state power," that is, not to seize it—and to voluntarily resign in May 2024.

Zelensky still enjoys significant support

However, according to observers, Volodymyr Zelensky's legitimacy relies not only on laws but also on the support of Ukrainian citizens. Although there has been some decline, support remains fairly high.

According to a survey by the Ukrainian research center "Razumkov" conducted in January, 69 percent of Ukrainians trust the state leader, while less than a quarter do not. Another survey, presented by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology (KIIS) in early February, shows that 69 percent of respondents believe Zelensky should remain president until the end of the state of war.

Only 15 percent favor holding elections under current conditions, while another ten percent support the idea of the president transferring powers to the chairman of the parliament, Ruslan Stefanchuk. Anton Hrushevskyi, director of KIIS, however, believes that the latter two scenarios pose an even greater threat to the legitimacy of the authorities and the stability of the situation in Ukraine.

"Millions of people are abroad, millions are under occupation, and hundreds of thousands are serving in the military. If citizens cannot participate as voters or candidates in the elections, it will undermine the legitimacy of the election results," Hrushevskyi points out.

The role of the Constitutional Court

Most legal experts interviewed by DW believe that the Constitutional Court should settle the debate about the president's powers and possible elections. "Only the Constitutional Court is authorized to interpret the constitution and verify whether other laws comply with it," emphasizes Andriy Mahera.

However, Constitutional Court judges cannot independently review such important issues. Moreover, not everyone can initiate this procedure before the Constitutional Court—only the president, the government, the Supreme Court, a group of 45 deputies, or the parliamentary commissioner for human rights can do so.

So far, none of them has done so. At the end of February, the newspaper "Dzerkalo Tyzhnia" reported, citing its sources, that Zelensky's office was working on a request to the Constitutional Court but did not dare to submit it independently.

Allegedly, it should be done by 45 deputies of the president's party, "Servant of the People." Representatives of various political forces say they have no intention of appealing to the Constitutional Court and remind that parliamentary groups have agreed not to hold elections until the end of the state of war.

Volodymyr Zelensky Ukraine