Ukraine's Local Elections: New law, old problems

Melanie Mierzejewski-Voznyak is the author of an analysis "Ukraine's Local Elections: New law, old problems" published by New Eastern Europe, the exclusive bimonthly news magazine dedicated to Central and Eastern European affairs.

Since Petro Poroshenko assumed the presidency of Ukraine, the majority of discussions about the future of Ukrainian democracy have been consumed by external factors. This has been for good reason. Russian troops invaded, then annexed Crimea in early 2014; at the same time, Russia initiated another war front in eastern Ukraine, which claimed over 6,000 thousand lives and has displaced over one million Ukrainians. In addition to a severe human cost, the Russian war carried a huge economic cost by bringing to a halt various industrial enterprises in the Donbas region. However, the political fate of the country is equally dependent on internal factors particularly the improvement of procedural democracy.

Ukrainian local elections, scheduled for October 25th 2015, are another important step for the development of Ukraine’s democratic politics. First, local elections will be held according to their regular five-year election cycle; the elections are an important step in the decentralisation process being discussed by President Poroshenko. Second, they will be conducted according to a new set of electoral laws that look to increase representativeness and strengthen the role of political parties. However, this latest round of elections is unlikely to introduce higher levels of transparency into the electoral process or bolster the role or function of political parties in Ukraine.
2015 local elections: picking a date and setting the rules

Ukrainian elections, at all governing levels, are typically characterised by unpredictability. That is, it is often difficult to predict when elections will occur as there may be irregularity in election cycles due to political upheaval (re-run of presidential elections following the 2004 Orange Revolution, the snap Presidential and municipal elections of 2014 following the Revolution of Dignity) or elections may be indefinitely postponed (lack of Kyiv mayoral elections following the 2012 resignation of Leonid Chernovetskyi until the snap elections held in 2014). Furthermore, unpredictability stems from a volatile party system that sees new configurations of party blocs (or coalitions) each election. This unpredictability has negatively impacted Ukrainian politics by preventing regular and predictable change in local government as well as stunting party development.

Under the second Minsk Agreement, local governing bodies in Ukraine are to be strengthened and electoral procedures made more transparent. This comes as a necessary part of the larger process of decentralisation proposed in Ukraine. The first step in this plan is to hold local elections. A ruling by the Supreme Court of Ukraine, in May 2013, set municipal elections for the last Sunday in October 2015. While this decision came prior to the 2014 Revolution of Dignity, this ruling aimed to create a regular, predictable election cycle in Ukrainian local elections. The October 2015 municipal elections will synchronise the election of city council representatives as well as city mayors and village leaders across Ukraine, regardless of when the last election was held (It should be noted that elections will not be held in the occupied territories of Donetsk and Luhansk and there is no provision in the new law providing voting rights for internally displaced persons.).

While some municipalities held snap elections in 2014 following the collapse of Yanukovych’s government, other cities and villages have not held elections since 2010. This means that in many cities and villages, particularly in southern and eastern Ukraine, representatives from the former Party of Regions still have significant political presence. At this time, such coordination of local elections is important because it will allow for complete political changeover in all regions of Ukraine not currently embattled in war with Russia. Lasting political change in Ukraine will most likely come from a bottom-up approach. In other words, political “renewal,” according to President Poroshenko, needs to start at the local level with the ushering in of all new city councils.

As a first step in delegating more power to local authorities, a new set of local election laws was passed July 14th 2015 and signed into law by President Poroshenko on August 6th 2015. The new election law aims at creating a more representative, accountable local government – although it only partially tackles this issue. While a bill that was drafted by around 20 members of parliament (MPs) in collaboration with civil society experts offered the most comprehensive overhaul to local elections laws, it was defeated by one that was the product of just five MPs - Vadym Denysenko, Serhiy Alekseyev, Ihor Popov, Yuriy Chyzhmar, and Olena Ledovska.

 A major flaw with the new law is the complex structure that actually introduces three electoral systems:

 - Mayors, settlements, and village councils are elected under a majoritarian system, by a first-past-the-post system in areas where there are less than 90,000 voters (candidates can be nominated by parties or self-nominated),

 - Mayors are elected under a two-round system in areas where voters exceed 90,000 (candidates can be nominated by parties only),

 - Oblast, district, city, and city district elections are held under a multi-mandate constituency proportional electoral system (closed lists with candidates nominated by parties only).

The change from a mixed system (proportional and majoritarian representation) at the oblast, district and city council levels to strictly proportional representation with multi-mandate constituency is aimed at benefiting party formation. Under the mixed system, independent candidates were able to thrive in the majoritarian elections, undermining party building. While some Ukrainian lawmakers and news outlets are referring to this new system as an “open-list” electoral system, this fails to be the case, as voters do not have the option to choose among different party candidates. The election ballot will present voters with a list of political parties with the name of the number one party candidate in the region listed in brackets, then a dash and the name of the party candidate for that constituency (if one has been designated).

Prioritising the “Party”

Failure to introduce a proportional system with true open lists deprives voters of the ability to choose among candidates, which limits their choice to political parties. This weight being attached to political parties attempts to strengthen a perpetually weak party system, by increasing the role parties play in local politics. The long-term goal of increasing the role of parties at the local level is to further the development of regional party operations as well as to increase the continuity between local and national authorities.

Two notable changes in electoral law are the banning of electoral blocs and the restriction of independent candidates for mayor and oblast/city/town council deputy. Both of these moves can be interpreted as efforts to underpin party presence at the municipal level. Interestingly, a 2010 Razumkov Centre opinion polls finds that at least half of Ukrainian citizens have never heard of local party organisation activities in their regions.

The problem with electoral blocs is that they inject a high level of volatility into the party system and perpetuate weak political party structures. Elections at all levels in Ukraine typically saw the participation of electoral blocs – a coalition of two or more political parties created prior to an election – as opposed to individual political parties. This allows for parties to run on joint lists and pool support and resources, capturing larger shares of the overall vote. For instance, in the 2014 parliamentary election, the Petro Poroshenko Bloc won more seats that any other party, but did so running a joint list with Vitaliy Klichko’s party Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform (UDAR). As the Poroshenko Bloc lacked a strong party apparatus, this alliance allowed it to capitalise off of UDAR’s established party structure. Electoral blocs are more tactical than ideological (strategic) and are constructed mainly for the purpose of contesting elections. These blocs typically collapse soon after the election, allowing politicians to shirk political responsibility attached to campaign promises made by the bloc. By prohibiting electoral blocs in the 2015 municipal elections, electoral law is providing systemic conditions for the support of political parties by forcing them to heighten their visibility as a party and reinforce their individual local operations.

The restriction on independent candidates from running in local elections, in areas where voters exceed 90,000, benefits political parties as it shifts more votes their way. In local elections, where policy platforms are rarely well articulated, non-partisan candidates that take to the streets and create an identifiable persona can perform very well. Party platforms are not necessary on issues such as sanitation management and road problems. Requiring candidates to belong to a party, in theory, forces parties to increase their local presence and interact with local voters. Regional diffusion of a political party increases its local authority and strengthens the entire party organisation. It should be noted that by law, political parties in Ukraine are legally required, within six months of the date of registration, to staff regional offices in a majority of the 24 oblasts. However, these offices rarely stay active and open in-between elections.

Where the new law stumbles is in the simple prioritisation of parties without consideration for the additional anti-democratic hurdles it creates. First, non-party candidates may in fact be better suited for local leadership, as they spend less time trying to network with party bosses and more time listening to local voter needs and demands. Second, even if a candidate wins his or her district, whether or not he or she takes office is dependent on if their party overcomes the new 5 per cent threshold (previously 3 per cent). Such a high threshold is likely to encourage vote buyingbecause parties will be under more pressure to secure a larger number of votes. A third point, which is related, is that the new law favors big, well-funded parties that are more visible. Finally, most mayoral as well as oblast, district, and city council candidates will be dependent on the approval of their respective party’s central leadership in order to run in elections. As political parties in Ukraine operate with little internal democracy, this raises many questions about how candidates will be placed on the party list and in what constituency. The end result is that voters will pick a party, but lack any input on the actual candidate they vote for in their respective precinct.

Of further concern, the new election law lacks oversight on the delimitation of constituencies, which creates inequality among candidates within parties. Following the elections, candidates will be ranked in their party – and then awarded seats on a council – according to the percentage of votes they received individually, regardless of the size of the constituency in which they ran. Candidates in smaller constituencies will then have a greater chance of getting elected than those in larger ones, as it will be easier for them to capture a larger percentage of the total vote in their constituency, even though it is likely to be less actual votes than that captured by a candidate running in a larger one. As noted by Olha Aivazovska, the head of the Ukraine’s most reliable election monitor OPORA, “This disproportion will be very serious, and it will cause distrust among voters in the election results.” Such complex electoral procedure is incapable of delivering increased transparency.

The continued problem with political parties in Ukraine
Political parties are meant to function as the intermediaries between state and society. They contribute to political stability, shape the political landscape, and impact effective policymaking. The move to a proportional representative system at most levels of municipal councils, in addition to limiting the candidacy rights of independent candidates, is meant to strengthen the role of political parties in local politics. However, the nature of the new law is unlikely to stabilise or to contribute significantlyto the development of Ukraine’s party system. Party systems do not exist independently of other institutions, and are in large part, by-products of the political parties themselves.

While the new election law may have been drafted with the aim of encouraging party development, political parties failed to receive the message. Parties have largely recycled their programs from the 2014 elections and continue to focus on issues of war, corruption, and Ukraine’s membership in international organisations.In Ukraine, particularly now during the ongoing war with Russia, political issues of national scope eclipse municipal considerations. Not only does this make election campaigning nothing more than an exercise in futility, it obscures local salient issues. Most parties are putting forward vague party programs in the run-up to the October elections, many of which highlight issues outside the scope of local authority and/or employ populist tactics. For instance, the Petro Poroshenko Bloc and Svoboda highlight the national defence of Ukraine while Batkivshchyna promises to lower utility prices and reform the justice system. While such issues are likely to appeal to voters, these campaigning tactics demonstrate the continued weakness of party organisation and party programs particularly at the local level.

The local elections on October 25th 2015 are important for Ukraine, and will allow a complete renewal of local government for the first time since the deposing of Yanukovych’s government. However, while the new electoral law aims to increase transparency and elevate the role of political parties in civic politics, it is far too complex and overestimates both parties’ desire to further develop local organisations and their ability to strengthen local authority. While this election will likely provide good campaigning practice for the next round of parliamentary elections, electoral and party politics at the municipal level will remain convoluted and institutionally weak.

Read the original article here.

About the author: Melanie Mierzejewski-Voznyak is an Associate Research Fellow at the Institute of International Relations Prague. She obtained her PhD in Political Science from the University of Illinois, Chicago, with a focus in comparative politics. Her areas of expertise include democratisation and party politics in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus.