Ukraine Local Elections Challenge Zelenskyy's Plans

Victories in large cities by political parties with no affiliation to national parties means more efforts from Kyiv are needed to strengthen social cohesion.

Expert comment Published 3 November 2020 Updated 6 November 2020 3 minute READ

Results of the 2020 local elections clearly show Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s plans for expanding his political influence to Ukraine’s regions have to be put on hold, as he now finds himself in a position where pushing a nationwide reform agenda will be more difficult due to the fragmented political landscape.

Anti-reform opposition forces - especially Russia-aligned groups and local crony elites - are mobilizing, and this could endanger already fragile social cohesion as, already, there are signs of success at rolling back the gains of the post-2014 anti-corruption policy by use of their influence over the Constitutional Court. They could now act with even more resolve to derail Ukraine’s integration with the West.

The election of local mayors and members of city, district and wider oblast councils matter because they complete an important political cycle and act as a mid-term reality check on President Zelenskyy’s track-record – and it is clear he is losing political ground.

Compared to his May 2019 landslide victory, his Servant of the People party performed badly this time, winning none of the mayoral seats in the ten largest Ukrainian cities as all incumbent mayors were re-elected, even those with a shady reputation in Odesa and Kharkiv.

Taking place under new rules, whereby council members were elected from open party lists, the local elections have reinvigorated political pluralism as no single political party will govern alone in the large cities. And, although there are some minor violations, preliminary conclusions of the OSCE ODHIR mission are positive.

Servant of the People did manage to pass the five percent threshold in most large city councils, but scored better in the south-east and central regions, while most large cities will be run by coalitions, with the so-called ‘mayoral’ parties having the largest number of seats.

Ukraine’s new electoral code requires mayors to run as party candidates, so new parties mushroomed ahead of the elections, with 144 parties competing for votes nationwide. However, many of these new parties operate only at the city level and are purely vehicles for incumbents to stay in power.

The result is a fragmentation of political space, with local elites strengthening their positions which could lead to tensions between the regions and central government in an outcome which could have been predicted when considering Ukraine’s decentralization process started in 2014.

With more tax revenue remaining in the communities where it was collected, mayors are able to invest more in local infrastructure and public service upgrades, leading to increased satisfaction with and trust in local authorities, at exactly the time when trust in Zelenskyy and the national government is declining.

Mayors have been unwilling to share the trust they have gained with the president’s party by running on a Servant of the People ticket, while the entry of Kremlin-allied parties into several local councils has created even more turbulence. Parties such as Opposition Platform - For Life (OPFL) and the party of YouTube blogger Anatoly Shariy are notorious opponents of reform, and constantly attack Zelenskyy’s approaches to conflict resolution.

Although their gains are insignificant in comparison to the scale of Zelenskyy’s win in 2019, they still managed to beat the ruling party or take second position in several large cities such as Kharkiv, Odesa, Dnipro and Mariupol and, potentially, could cause major disruption by making controversial statements about relations with Russia or obstructing the implementation of the national reform agenda.

Aggressive ‘disinformation campaigns’ during the elections flooded social media and TV stations with stories about US spies creating COVID-19 in secret Ukrainian laboratories and Zelenskyy being a ‘marionet of the West’. President Putin’s meeting with Victor Medvedchuk from the OPFL party just two weeks before the elections seemed designed to send a strong signal as to who is best placed to improve relations with Russia.

Ukraine lacks the social cohesion required to ensure reforms move ahead, and poor election results creates additional pressure on Zelenskyy’s crumbling majority in parliament, as opponents may now call for early national elections with serious doubts as to whether Zelenskyy can champion a radical reform agenda.

He seems more inclined to invest his time in populist rhetoric and balancing the demands of various vested interest groups but, should Zelenskyy opt for a more productive role, he could avoid an impasse in governance by pushing projects that strengthen relations between the centre and the regions.

Competent management of the COVID-19 pandemic, land reform, anti-corruption efforts, modernization of public infrastructure, and environmental protection all require constructive cooperation between governing teams across Ukraine. The regions are in desperate need of investment and attracting foreign direct investment (FDI) while pulling together national and regional resources will see ambitious development projects come to fruition.

Many Ukrainians say they have experienced either no results from reforms, or have had a negative experience, so it is surely more profitable to focus on achievable objectives, while more realistic communication about what is possible in negotiations with the Kremlin is long overdue. Ignoring local governance could backfire, especially considering the weak and ineffective structures of national governance.

The strengthening of local elites via the local elections means Kyiv has serious thinking to do about how to create effective cooperation and trusted relations with regional actors. Ukraine’s decentralization reforms remain incomplete, and the implementation of national policies lacks effective oversight by Kyiv.

If this disconnect remains unresolved, Ukraine’s nation-building project is at risk of stagnating, or being halted by those internal and external actors wishing to wreck Ukraine.