Local Elections in Ukraine: Blurring the Dividing Lines

Blog by Oleksii Sydorchuk addresses the first post-Euromaidan local elections in Ukraine.

On 25 October, Ukrainians voted in the first local elections since the events of the Euromaidan and the start of the conflict in the country’s Eastern region of Donbas. Aside from the new political realities on the ground which have changed dramatically since the previous elections in 2010, the recent voting was influenced by other important developments inside Ukraine. First, the local elections saw application of the new electoral law which preserved first-past-the-post system in the smaller constituencies (villages and towns) but introduced unusual proportional system for the larger constituencies (raions, oblasts, and cities). The proportional system was called ‘open list’ model by the authors of the new law but in fact it preserved tight control of party leaders over their candidates.

Second, the elections took place at the time of the ongoing process of decentralization. Although constitutional changes which will bring more formal competences to local councils and mayors are yet to be passed, the process of fiscal and monetary decentralization is already unfolding. Moreover, some local settlements have already used the legal possibility to unite into larger communities with more capabilities of addressing the issues of local significance. Nevertheless, the electoral campaign was still dominated by heavy political issues, as parties were promising to implement decisions which have nothing to do with local self-government, such as establishing contract army or increasing pensions.

Despite the final results of the elections are not published yet, one can derive at least two general conclusions from the available data. First, the 2015 elections fared significantly better than the previous ones held in 2010 in terms of political pluralism and fairness of electoral procedures, if not in terms of culture of candidates’ communication with voters and transparency of candidates’ financing. All significant players were allowed to participate in the elections, unlike in 2010 when the biggest opposition party “Batkivshchyna” was denied that right in several regions. Frequency of abuses of public offices by candidates was also considerably lower. Finally, in no major city or region, there were credible allegations of massive electoral fraud – again, unlike during the 2010 elections when the elections of Odesa and Kharkiv mayors (among others) were most likely falsified. Still, however, electoral agitation was marred by meaningless slogans and unrealistic commitments instead of clear programs of actions and performed mostly with the help of paid advertisement instead of political rallies or door-to-door meetings. Transparency of parties’ incomes and expenditures was also traditionally low to non-existent, as practically none of the candidates tried to publicly account for usage of their electoral funds.

Second, the elections will most likely produce extremely pluralistic political environment in most of the regions. Currently the biggest pro-presidential party “Solidarnist” gained only relative majority of votes in most of the regions and no majority at all in other regions which will force it to find allies among other parties in order to form coalitions in local councils. What could be more surprising is that the curiously titled Opposition Block which pretends to be the successor of the once-dominant Party of Regions was able to gain majority only in some of its traditional electoral strongholds, including Donetsk and Luhansk oblast. Elsewhere, it faced strong competition from its former companions which had formed alternative political forces. The latter included “Nash Krai”, which attempted to present itself as a party of mayors, and “Vidrodzhennia” – eclectic political project representing interests of both current Kharkiv mayor Hennadiy Kernes and former Dnipropetrovsk governor and businessman Ihor Kolomoiskyi. Some other relatively new parties have also succeeded in breaking out of their regional zones of comfort into new territories – including initially Western regions-oriented “Samopomich” party.

Such electoral results serve as another evidence of blurring of East-West political cleavage which once dominated Ukrainian politics. Public opinion on preferred vector of foreign policy is another case in point. While up until 2014 Ukrainian population was almost evenly divided between the proponents of integration with the EU and adherents of joining the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (then called the Customs Union), the situation radically changed during 2014. Now, supporters of the European vector prevail over those favoring closer ties with Russia in almost all regions of Ukraine, including Eastern and Southern ones. Both Ukraine and the EU should seize the moment and capitalize on these public sentiments by pursuing closer cooperation on promoting European-style reforms in Ukraine while the window of opportunities is still open.

#Ukraine #Euromaidan #blog #local elections

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