Why Ukraine’s Local Elections Matter
On 21 October 2020, the Ukrainian Think Tanks Liaison Office in Brussels together with the European Policy Centre, the U.S. Mission to the European Union and the International Renaissance Foundation organised an on-line Policy Dialogue “Why Ukraine’s Local Elections Matter”.
On 25 October 2020, Ukrainians go to the polls to elect their local authorities. These are the first elections under the country’s new electoral code adopted in December 2019, making the results more consequential for voters. It also serves as the first major electoral test for Zelensky and the Servant of the People party since his unprecedented victory last year.
The ongoing decentralisation reform process has significantly strengthened the position of elected local officials. While supporters of reform see it as a step towards greater democracy, it also creates the potential for confrontation between the central government and the empowered municipal officials. If support for Zelensky’s party shows signs of decline, local elites may be less inclined to align themselves with the president.
Amanda Paul, Senior Policy Analyst, European Policy Centre, said that the upcoming local elections present a major test for President Zelensky and his Servant of the People party. This Dialogue would not only assess what might happen and how the results might impact the president’s rule, but also what impact the results might have on EU relations and the ongoing domestic reform process.
Olena Carbou, Executive Director & Co-founder, Ukrainian Think Tanks Liaison Office in Brussels, began by discussing the background to this election. She noted that these are the first elections since electoral and decentralisation territorial reforms came into force. More specifically, a proportional voting system will be used. A gender quota has been introduced, with 40 % of party lists made up of women.
Carbou expected Covid19 to result in a low turnout. In addition, the president is losing trust among voters and has low approval ratings. The majority of Ukrainians think that things are going in the wrong direction, she noted. Another critical point is that many local parties have no affiliation with central parties. This can make it difficult for voters to know where people stand.
Carbou highlighted the president plans to launch a questionnaire. While the questionnaire has no legal power, she questioned whether this was a tool to increase the president’s popularity or to manipulate voters. People should keep an eye out for how this questionnaire is distributed, and whether this will be done on election day.
There is also a question over whether pro-Russian political forces will try to use the electoral process to expand their influence inside Ukraine. More broadly, what the results might tell us about the future political landscape of the country.
The election presents a chance to see whether EU integration is a real issue for the authorities or just window dressing. The results will also show the level of confidence, or distrust, in the authorities.
Viktor Zamiatin, Director of Political and Legal Programmes, Razumkov Centre, said that one positive point was that a majority of Ukrainians think that their vote is important and that elections will improve the situation in their region.
Zamiatin identified several factors that could influence the outcome, including the ongoing pandemic and the new electoral code. Many political parties are only active within their own region, he noted. One key point was whether local parties would represent the interests of local elites, many of whom have benefited from the process of decentralisation.
Zamiatin predicted that the majority of incumbent city mayors would be re-elected, despite the efforts of the president and his allies. This election is just the first step towards really seeing the kind of political and electoral system that Ukraine has, he added.
Andrius Kubilius, Member of the European Parliament and Chairman of EURONEST and MEP, European Parliament, said that Ukraine’s election should be seen within a regional context, especially in terms of recent developments in Belarus and Russia. Another important consideration is the fact that the remnants of pro-Russian parties are recovering in the East.
Kubilius compared the situation in Ukraine to the experiences of other new democracies, including Lithuania in the 1990s. After the ‘revolution’, it is the revolutionary party that wins, he said. Because people expect to see miracles, they then quickly become dissatisfied, and this is reflected in polling and future elections. He also predicted different developments in different municipalities, where both democracy and autocracy will flourish.
Kubilius also noted that when Lithuania was facing political change, the EU came out with a clear perspective on integration. This had a major stabilising effect. He called for similar signals to be directed towards Ukraine.
Melinda Haring, Deputy Director, Eurasia Center, Atlantic Council, said that Servant of the People would get thrashed. While they were elected with huge popularity, their numbers have crashed. She agreed that incumbents would win in the big cities, and suggested that Servant of the People would not win any major mayoral seat.
Haring also noted that party affiliation was extremely fluid in Ukraine, with new parties popping up. She welcomed the fact that many former residents of the occupied regions in the East can finally vote according to their residential addresses. However, she criticised the country’s COVID-19 preparedness.
US-Ukraine relationships are very tense at the moment, she said. A Biden presidency would be favourable from a Ukraine point of view because he wants the reform agenda to work. A second Trump presidency would be more challenging because no one knows how he would behave. More broadly, it is likely that a Trump Ukraine team would be highly inexperienced. While a Biden administration would bring immense amounts of experience, there would still be friction between Russia and Ukraine polices.