Ukrainian voters go to the polls again on Sunday 25 October, for the third time in eighteen months, after electing President Petro Poroshenko in May 2014 and the new parliament in October 2014. This time they vote for mayors and councillors. The elections have extra significance as more resources are allocated to local authorities through a process of fiscal decentralization.
According to Ukraine’s Central Electoral Commission, over 350,000 candidates will compete for 168,450 positions as mayors of cities, villages and settlements, and as members of councils at regional (oblast), district (rayon), city, city district, village and settlement levels; 132 political parties are taking part. This is a huge, complex and highly granular process. As with local elections elsewhere, local issues will be as important, if not more, than national concerns. But some general trends can be discerned.
The elections will not be held in Crimea, the city of Sevastopol, or those areas of Donetsk and Luhansk regions declared by Ukraine’s parliament to be temporarily occupied territories. The Central Electoral Commission has also decided it is not safe to hold elections in some parts of Donetsk and Luhansk regions controlled by the Ukrainian authorities but close to the line of contact with the rebel forces. Because of this some 526,000 Ukrainians will not be able to vote. And the election law does not provide for voting by nearly 1.5 million internally displaced persons.
The leaders of Germany, France, Ukraine and Russia, meeting in Paris on 2 October, reaffirmed that elections in the occupied areas of Donetsk and Luhansk regions would be held in accordance with Ukrainian legislation and in the presence of observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The separatist leaders duly confirmed on 6 October that the ‘elections’ they had planned for 18 October (Donetsk) and 1 November (Luhansk) would be postponed pending agreement with the Ukrainian authorities on the modalities for holding them. Taken together with the fact that the ceasefire has largely held since September and that both sides are now withdrawing heavy weapons, this move gives some ground for hope that the crisis in Eastern Ukraine may at last be moving towards resolution.
Decentralization is a key component of the revised constitution approved by parliament in first reading on 30 August. Fiscal decentralization is bringing increased revenues for local communities. Since 1 January most local administrations can receive 60 per cent of locally generated income tax and all the so-called ‘single tax’ (a lump sum tax for small businesses) as well as a share of other taxes. The State Fund for Regional Development will provide a stable and predictable budget for the regions using a transparent formula based on size of population and a comparison of regional GDP to the Ukrainian average. Small municipalities, mostly dependent on subsidies from central government, are being encouraged to go for voluntary amalgamations. There is wide consensus within Ukrainian society and among all the main political parties on the need for decentralization, but continuing debate over key elements such as territorial amalgamations.
Major themes and players
The OSCE election observers have found the campaign environment calm, but noted the backdrop of growing disillusionment with the political establishment, ongoing economic crisis and hurdles encountered in fighting corruption and poverty. There have been frequent reports of vote-buying and the misuse of administrative resources. There has also allegedly been widespread use of undeclared funds by parties for political advertisements displayed before the registration of candidates, which are not subject to reporting as campaign expenditure.
The majority of campaign slogans refer to broad socio-economic and pro-European themes. The continuing armed conflict in the East and military themes are not prominent in the elections. But heated debates in regional and district councils on corruption, land distribution or the work of local utility companies are mirrored in local campaigns.
Only two parliamentary parties are taking part in all regions of Ukraine:
- Bloc Petro Poroshenko Solidarity (BPPS), which unites the president’s party with Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko’s United Democratic Alliance for Reform (UDAR). The People’s Front of Prime Minister Arseny Yatsenyuk is not taking part in the elections, but members are mostly running under the BPPS flag; and
- Batkivshchyna (‘Fatherland’) led by former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, whose popularity has recovered on the back of a populist campaign attacking the increased gas prices pushed through by the governing coalition, including Batkivshchyna.
The Communist Party of Ukraine was banned from taking part by court decision. Members of the once dominant and now dissolved Party of Regions of former President Viktor Yanukovych are competing through other political parties (particularly Opposition Bloc and Nash Kray) or as self-nominated candidates for mayoral positions. The Opposition Bloc, the Radical Party of Oleh Lyashko and Samopomych headed by Lviv Mayor Andriy Sadoviy have focused their efforts in regions where they enjoy most support. Some parties not represented in parliament (Ukrainian Union of Patriots (UKROP), Svoboda and Nash Kray) have put forward candidates for oblast and oblast centre councils in practically every region.
Turnout is expected to be under 50 per cent. These elections will not change the political complexion of Ukraine. Instead, they are another stage in the unexciting but important process of building local democracy and giving local communities more say over their affairs.
Looking further ahead, the local elections may come to be seen as a staging post in a longer campaign for influence in Ukraine. If figures sympathetic to Russia manage to establish a greater local political presence, by the time of the next parliamentary election they may be able to increase their representation in the national parliament (at a low after the Euromaidan). By entering into coalition with parliamentary groups sponsored by big business figures, they might then even form a government – like Yanukovych’s – which could resist further European integration by Ukraine. But this is only one scenario. Much could happen before the next parliamentary election, due in 2019.