Zelensky’s Five-Year Term Ends on May 20th

5 min read

But he has no plans to step down or call an election during wartime

Five years ago, on May 20th, 2019, a fresh-faced Volodymyr Zelensky began his presidency with the offer of a contract to his people. “Each of us is the president,” he said from the rostrum of parliament.

“This is our joint victory and chance…and joint responsibility.” The intervening years have not been kind, to him or Ukrainians in general.

First came the crisis of Donald Trump and “Ukrainegate”, then covid-19, and then Russia’s terrifying full-scale invasion.

By surviving this far, Mr Zelensky has already written himself into history.

But as problems worsen on the front lines, the Ukrainian president may be about to face his biggest political challenge yet: renewing his contract with his people with no obvious possibility of elections.

The mood in Kyiv is increasingly angsty, with Mr Zelensky’s opponents muttering that his monopoly on power is no longer tenable. Some are already playing the May 21st card, arguing that he loses political authority as soon as his scheduled five years are up.

The Kremlin, unsurprisingly, agrees with them. “Zelensky’s fate is predetermined…many will question his legitimacy,” said a spokesman in April.

Belarus’s Moscow-aligned president, Alexander Lukashenko, has even cast doubt on Mr Zelensky’s ability to be a legitimate signatory in any future peace deal, rich from a man who stole his way to re-election in 2020.

On first reading, the Ukrainian constitution fails to offer a straightforward riposte. Article 103, for example, states presidential terms are five years.

But most constitutional experts say martial law offers what is known as a “specific” exception to the general rule.

The key provision is therefore Article 108—that the “president…exercises powers until a newly elected president assumes office.” And elections are forbidden during martial law.

Roman Bezsmertny, a former deputy prime minister, and one of the authors of Ukraine’s 1996 constitution, says that the intention and the meaning of the clauses on the extension of presidential power is exactly this.

“Zelensky continues in power for as long as martial law applies. There is no political or legal crisis. Full stop.” The constitution was by nature a political compromise, he explains.

But it was also drafted explicitly with the possibility of a Russian invasion in mind. Many of the deputies who sat in the constitutional commission were dissidents, he says, seasoned by “decades” in the Gulag. “They knew what Russia was about and even told me how things could end.”

map: the economist

Publicly, Mr Zelensky’s allies are bullish about May 21st: nothing changes, and anything to the contrary is a Russian distraction. Privately, there are concerns about the effect the constant discussion may be having on public opinion.

Internal polling disclosed to The Economist shows that already as many as one in six Ukrainians believe Mr Zelensky’s status will somehow change come May 21st.

Those numbers are still not enough to dominate public discourse and they have no bearing on the legal issue, but they do create an unwelcome backdrop, and might in time weaken international support.

Mr Bezsmertny says the presidential office should have put the issue to bed by applying for a ruling from the country’s constitutional court. In 2023, a group of deputies from Mr Zelensky’s Servants of the People bloc pressed the office to do just this.

But a decision was taken not to refer, and is unlikely to be revisited. There was no desire to “service other people’s attacks on the president”, a government source argues.

“He is legitimate. If others have doubts, let them ask the question.” There are also concerns about Mr Zelensky’s relations with the court; early in his term, he tried to disband it, leaving sore feelings.

Thus Mr Zelensky finds himself in limbo for the foreseeable future, with no obvious moves to refresh his mandate. On the plus side, there is no internal demand for elections during war: the most recent polls show a mere 22% in favour.

But equally, Ukraine’s love affair with the former comic actor appears to be coming to an end. Ukrainians credit him for his brave part in national survival.

But fatigue, a steady drip of corruption headlines, and the obvious concentration of power in the hands of half a dozen functionaries have weakened the bonds. The president himself cuts an increasingly tired, angry and closed figure.

Polling by the Razumkov Centre shows trust in the presidency has fallen from a net positive of 71% in 2023 to a net positive 26%. Trust in the army has remained rock solid at 93% net positive.

Ukraine’s army meanwhile faces one of its toughest periods of the war, with Russia opening new lines of attack in the Kharkiv region at a moment when Ukrainian manpower and ammunition are at their weakest.

Russia has already made alarmingly swift progress since the start of its offensive on May 10th, with guided aerial bombs and mobile storm troops making easy work of a flimsy first line of fortification.

Ukraine has so far lost at least nine small settlements, forcing a switch in command and the early deployment of reserves.


An intelligence source said he expected there to be more bad news if and when Russia opens another line of attack in Sumy province farther north. Mr Zelensky’s legitimacy problems would almost certainly intensify if things go badly, regardless of the formal legal position. 

source: economist.com/volodymyr-zelenskys-five-year-term-ends-on-may-20th

You May Also Like