On October 25, Ukrainians vote in local and regional elections—the third set of elections in Ukraine since the Euromaidan antigovernment protests, after the presidential and parliamentary polls in 2014.
By definition, local elections tend to present a more complex picture than national ballots and often appear as second-order elections. However, these elections are an important test of the political mood across Ukraine, and the results will shape the Ukrainian polity and reform process significantly in the months and years to come.
The local elections represent a trial run for the next parliamentary vote, due by 2019 at the latest, though an early election is on the agenda given the possibility that the government could collapse. The elections on October 25 are likely to reinforce the distance between local and regional politics, on the one hand, and national politics, on the other, making it harder for the broad ruling coalition in Kyiv to govern.
Moreover, in view of ongoing decentralization reforms, the elected local councillors are likely to acquire greater powers, including executive and budgetary authority. A resource-intensive campaign has highlighted what is at stake.
According to a recent opinion poll by the International Republican Institute, an NGO, the degree of political mobilization in Ukraine remains high: 75 percent of Ukrainians surveyed said that they were likely or somewhat likely to vote on October 25. Such a figure is noteworthy for participation in local elections. However, Ukrainians are also deeply alienated from national politics and frustrated by a lack of tangible progress on reforms and a lack of information about the ongoing reform process.
Such opinion polls, conducted in a country at war and characterized by political and economic uncertainty, should be treated with caution. Even so, the extent to which Ukrainian society has lost confidence in the political leaders who emerged from the Euromaidan is staggering. About 70 percent of those polled saw the country moving in the wrong direction. Forty percent strongly disapproved of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko; 48 percent and 54 percent strongly disapproved of the parliament and the cabinet, respectively.
The approval ratings of the main political leaders have dropped significantly over the past year. As of September 2015, 38 percent of Ukrainians viewed Poroshenko very unfavorably, while 59 percent saw Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk in this way. Interestingly, prominent mayors (in Kyiv and Lviv) and governors (in Odessa and Zakarpattia) bucked this trend, underlining the significance of the local and regional elections.
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The extremes in the changing support for national parties are marked by Yatsenyuk’s People’s Front, which has dwindled to 1 percent, and by former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko’s Fatherland party, which is experiencing a revival and is back among the top four parties, each of which would currently receive about 10 percent of the vote in a national election. (The other three leading parties are the president’s Petro Poroshenko Bloc; Self-Reliance, the party of Lviv Mayor Andriy Sadovyi; and the Opposition Bloc, a successor to former president Viktor Yanukovych’s Party of Regions.)
The October 25 local elections take place under new electoral rules that are meant to strengthen political party structures at the subnational level. Voters will cast their vote for a particular party and its candidate in their electoral district. The composition of the councils then depends on the level of support for individual party candidates. This system makes it hard to predict the results, though overall, Fatherland, the Petro Poroshenko Bloc, and Self-Reliance are in the lead in opinion polls.
The new electoral law introduced three further changes. First, only parties that receive at least 5 percent of the vote in a given district will be represented. Second, each party list must be made up of at least 30 percent women and at least 30 percent men. Third, a two-round competition will be held to elect of mayors in cities of over 90,000 inhabitants where the lead candidate fails to secure over 50 percent of the vote in the first round.
The gist of these reforms is sensible and aims to strengthen party formation and accountability. Party lists have become more transparent, which however makes it more apparent that party affiliations are often only nominal.
The number of parties is high—132 have registered—and many of them will disappear without a trace after the elections. But in addition to the familiar nationwide parties, a number of smaller outfits will gain a local or regional foothold, for example the Ukrainian Association of Patriots (UKROP), the new party of former Dnipropetrovsk governor Ihor Kolomoyskyi, as well as Revival and Our Country, both creations of former Yanukovych supporters.
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The local elections have given political forces in the southeast of Ukraine more of a platform from which to regroup and reclaim influence than the national elections did in 2014.
In early October, the leaders of the four countries in the so-called Normandy format that aims to end the war in eastern Ukraine—France, Germany, Russia, and Ukraine—and some separatist leaders in the Donbas agreed to postpone the local elections on the occupied territories. This move bought the conflict parties a much-needed breathing space for the newly enforced ceasefire, which is currently holding better than before.
Moreover, Ukraine’s Central Election Commission canceled the elections for 91 local councils in the Donetsk region and for 31 councils in the Luhansk region close to the war zone. The majority of the country’s estimated 1.4 million internally displaced people will not be able to vote as they are still registered at their former homes. Deputies of the ruling coalition blocked legislation in the parliament that would have enabled displaced people to vote, as they feared such a move would benefit the Opposition Bloc.
Ukraine’s 2015 local and regional elections are an important test of the political mobilization and orientation of the Ukrainian electorate. In their aftermath, the government is likely to come under greater pressure from opposition forces and from a more apparent gap between national and subnational politics.