Election Local Elections in Ukraine. Two Tales about One Polity
The highly preliminary electoral results of the regional elections in Ukraine indicate that the rapidly changing framework has had a highly diverse effect on the political arena, emboldening some, and discouraging others.
Published on balticworlds.com on november 18, 2010
When Charles Dickens wrote his A Tale of Two Cities he certainly did not have local elections in Ukraine on his mind. The narrative on London and Paris before and after the French Revolution did open with the most famous oxymoron of all times, however. Coining the phrase “these are the best of times, these are the worst of times”, Dickens certainly suggested that times could be both, pending on geographical location and political tradition.
Although Ukraine has both a location and a set of traditions, the times are certainly more difficult than good. The Dickens allegory is hence only good for one thing, namely to indicate that Ukraine’s political development could be told as two tales about one polity. On the one hand, holding elections in Ukraine may have become routine. Since 2004, there have been two presidential elections, and two parliamentary elections. In this time span, Ukraine has also amended the Constitution, introduced fully proportional elections and initiated a division of power between the government and president. On the other hand, schemes are not always the real structuring force of politics. Routines may also change, and old habits prevail. Elite preferences and passions blend in, and then there is parliamentary and governmental interaction, and “the economy – stupid”. Ukraine has taken a heavy dose of all, both before and after the 2008 economic crisis.
With this backdrop, institutional politics isn’t always the only game in town. There are several games, and they appear as nested games in George Tsebelis’ classical definition: as a game on several arenas or as a game where the rules are changed during the course of the game. In sum, the local elections on 31 October 2010 were a democratic routine that took place in a distinct chain of events. This chain of events was about reversing the institutional changes that have been introduced since the 2004 Constitutional amendment, and that were nascent before that. This makes Ukraine’s political change a story with at least two narratives—one about elections and change, and one about politics. Both should be told, with consequences for a third—the local elections.
The Tale about Institutional Change
It is perhaps true that Ukraine does not “fit the standard definitions used in political science”, but then again, which country does? None of the countries in the post-communist world reveal distinct and unambiguous patterns of institutional change, and none fit neatly into the available toolkit of “democracies with and adjective”. True, in Central Asia, there has been coherence between constitutional change towards enhanced presidential powers and lower scores on civic liberties. Moreover, strong parliaments are still the most recognized prerequisite for democratic consolidation. As it were, Ukraine has spanned both of these extremes in a sometimes turbulent, sometimes incremental political development that also displays most of the institutional arrangements available for transition countries.
This said, Ukraine has a long history of building political parties under conditions of pluralism. Among the first to repeal Article 6 of the Soviet Constitution, Ukraine formally adopted multiparty politics in 1990. Since then, it has progressed incrementally, trying to overcome the “birthmark” of a post-communist society with inherently weak party support. Gradual reforms of the electoral framework and the constitution have provided new incentives for parties to emerge. Ukraine introduced a mixed single-mandate and proportional system in 1998, thus creating new incentives for political parties to form. As presidential rule intensified after 1999, the number of registered parties jumped from 30 in 1994 to 123 by 2003. Although parties were in vogue, they were not strong, and elites were reluctant to pin their careers to party politics. This changed in the course of 2002–2004. A new reform agenda matured in the political elite, and in 2004, the 1996 Constitution was amended to set benchmarks for introducing fully proportional elections.
New institutional changes have been introduced to fortify the nascent party system. In 2005 and 2006, parallel changes were made in parliamentary regulations to avoid the formation of large electoral alliances within the parliament before elections, as had been the case between 2002 and 2004. As per the 2004 amendment, factions in parliament could be formed only by parties or electoral blocs that passed the 3 percent threshold and that had more than 15 members. In addition, parties and blocs in the Rada were given an “imperative mandate”. In sum, this mandate meant that the parliamentary seat belonged to the faction, not the individual deputy. Taken together, these changes returned politicians to the political arena through elections, and as heads of electoral alliances and parties, and they did so if not always in an orderly manner, then at least on the basis of transparent and competitive rules. The 2006 Rada elections signaled a transition to a presidential-parliamentary system, with more power to the government and strong incentives for parties to form government coalitions. The number of relevant parties was also reduced. In the 2006 elections, only 5 of 23 parties passed the 3 percent threshold and were allowed to form parliamentary factions.
The elections also reflected popular preferences and political realities. Electoral blocs identifying themselves with a Western vector in foreign policies, the national revival of Ukraine and the popular surge of the Orange Revolution gained a total of 210 seats in the Rada. The parties Our Ukraine (13.95 percent), and the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc (22.29 percent) both considered themselves mandated by the Orange Revolution as well as the results of the parliamentary elections. The strongest opposition bloc was the Party of Regions (32.14 percent). The traditional managerial profile of this bloc, and its strong support in the South East and Central Eastern parts of the country, made it a likely ally for the Communist Party of Ukraine (3.66 percent), but perhaps less so for the Socialist Party of Ukraine (5.69 percent).
In the tale about institutional change, the 2006 election marked a watershed in Ukraine’s political transition. In fact, the decision to move politics towards proportional elections and more power to the government was supported by a total of 402 deputies in December 2004—the majority of blocs competing for the popular vote in the 2006 elections. The amendment was based on a broad elite agreement bordering on a pact. This point stands out as even more important, given the fact that many of those that voted in favor of the amendment now seem to be undergoing a change of heart in a strange by-pass of most of the practices for forming governments and coalitions in the parliament.
But the tale of institutional change is also a tale about a contested political field. Forming government turned out to be difficult, both in terms of coalitions and holding former alliances together. The Orange coalition took three months in 2006 to establish a government, and that government fell apart on the very day it was supposed to be installed. Since then, the Orange coalition has started to “peel” to use a phrase by Adrian Karatnycky. On 2 April 2007, President Yushchenko dissolved the Rada, and effectively also the government. In the new Rada elections held on 30 September 2007, the vote produced two distinct government alternatives, sharply reflecting the east/west divide visible in their popular support. The Party of Regions gained 34.37 percent of the vote, but fewer seats (175) in parliament due to the introduction of a new system for converting votes into seats. Other results were Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc (30.71 percent and 156 seats), Our Ukraine – People’s Self Defense Bloc (14.15 percent and 72 seats), the Communist Party of Ukraine (5.39 percent and 27 seats), and the Lytvyn Bloc (3.95 percent and 20 seats). Notably, voters punished the Socialist Party of Ukraine severely for its shift of allegiance. It moved from the Orange coalition to join in coalition with the Party of Regions in July 2006 (see table 1).
Table 1: Parties and results 2006/2007
|Party||2006 elections||Seats||2007 elections||Seats|
|Party of Regions||32.14||185||34.37||175|
|Socialist Party of Ukraine||5.69||33||2.86||0|
|Communist Party of Ukraine||3.66||21||5.39||27|
The Tale about Politics
The simplest characteristic of a competitive electoral democracy is the continuity of rules and frameworks, and the tacit acceptance of these rules by the contenders. An additional criterion is the independence of the courts. Ukraine did display some of these features starting from 2004, with one important exception: the Constitutional Court was never a strong institution. This has played a crucial role in the tale of politics. If the political arena overheats, the contest moves beyond elections and spills over into the institutions that normally would mediate and soften political disagreements. In such a contested political field, the framework itself is the arena for political competition. Everything is possible. Institutional change can be disputed, draft laws regulating the assumed balance of power can be challenged, and the core issues are not ideological, but touch on a more profound question—the division of power. This can be transformed to a rule of thumb in transition studies: Division of power take place under stable institutional arrangements. If the institutional framework is volatile and shifting rapidly, actors are more concerned about the balance of power.
The contested period of 2007 – 2009 put its marks on Ukrainian politics. While president Yushchenko fathered a new pact in 2006, thereby creating conditions for the Party of Regions to form a government, politics made its way into the institutions. The Coalition of National Unity, formed by a coalition between the Party of Regions, the Socialist Party of Ukraine (which shifted sides in 2006) and the Communist Party of Ukraine, blocked several presidential legal drafts, and encroached on presidential rule by launching several draft laws in 2006 and 2007 to reduce presidential powers. Moreover, the nested game of the 2004 amendment made it difficult to sort out the mandates for power between government and president, which again backfired on the legislature’s performance. This was all politics, but also about competing mandates. In fact, the mixture between a proportional party system for the legislature, and the “winner takes all” presidential elections proved to be a recipe for deadlocks and zero-sum politics.
In the upshot, and after the presidential elections of 2010, practices were reversed. The new Azarov government was assembled after the lifting of the imperative mandate and what seemed to be an administrative dismissal of the Tymoshenko government by the chairman of the Rada. The lifting of the never effective imperative mandate could have been a formality, had it not been for the fact that it made it possible for defectors to leave their own factions and join the government coalition. Moreover, the bandwagon started to roll after the chairman of the Rada had declared that the government did not have a majority in the Rada. Making a reference to a newly adopted internal Rada rule (from 16 February) that the government should certify an absolute majority in the Rada (226 deputies) or leave office, the chairman prompted the government to hand in a list with signatures from deputies supporting it. Only after this, the chairman allowed a vote of no confidence.
In the tale of politics, the presidential elections, and the installment of a majority government started the drift towards reversing the Constitutional amendment of 2004. This was taken up by President Yanukovich in June. In late September, the Constitutional Court deemed the 2004 amendment invalid, and the ruling majority coalition agreed. The case was closed swiftly, and the amendment reversed the broad elite agreement that underpinned Ukraine’s institutional development from 2004 and onwards. In addition, it firmly installed both the Yanukovich presidency and the majority ruling coalition.
A Nested Game: The Local Elections
If there ever was a nested game in politics, Ukraine’s local elections are the one. There are numerous reasons for this. The regional divides in Ukraine are more than noticeable, and the accompanying political preferences likewise. While proportional elections could have erased regional differences in the long term, this would still have been possible only if the politics of the centre was less oriented towards the primary identity markers in Ukraine. Moreover, the regional elections themselves should have been given a more central role than what was allowed by the continuous changes of legislation, and also the fact that the Central Electoral Commissions resources and independence had been tarnished by the skirmishes over the political framework.
The narrative on these elections illustrates both institutional deficiencies and the passions of counter-reform. Originally set for 2011, local elections were postponed by a Rada vote on 16 February 2010, pending a new law draft. This was launched in April 2010, and stipulated prolonging the mandate of regional councils, including Crimea, and the chairmen of city councils, from four to five years. The change was to take effect from the then stipulated regional elections to be held in 2011. However, the draft was interpreted as having retroactive validity for the regional elections of 2006: representatives elected for four years in 2006 would automatically receive an extra year in office if the law were passed. This raised new questions, and the ruling coalition postponed a decision on the elections by sending the law to the Constitutional Court. The court reached a conclusion in June, arguing that the terms of office for future elections should be prolonged, but not with retroactive validity. The Rada went further, adopting a new law on local elections that stipulated holding elections on 31 October 2010.
More important than the date was the fact that the law narrowed the field of competition. First, the law stipulated that only parties that had been registered one year before the elections could run. While favoring the dominant parties from the 2006 and 2007 elections, the law ruled out many new parties that had emerged from the presidential elections, such as Arsenii Yatsenyuk’s Front of Change, and Serhiy Tyhypko’s Strong Ukraine. Second, the law broke with earlier practices, stating that all candidates for mayoral positions had to be registered with parties. That undermined the positions of several independent local mayors, with further centralization and less regional power as a possible result. Third, only parties could run, not blocs. This latter restriction threw a demolishing spanner in the works for the opposition’s largest party bloc, the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc, which had not yet become a coherent political party.
The elections themselves were conducted in a rush that affected both nominations and national observer capacities. The delay in adopting the law reduced the time for registration and nomination of candidates from 90 days to 50 days. Moreover, the shortening of the pre-electoral period made it difficult for the NGO sector to estimate the consequences for the political arena, and to prepare exit polls. Illustratively, results have appeared earlier in newspapers than on the website of the Central Electoral Commission itself. Indeed, the electoral commission has recently stated that it “may consider” publishing results at a later date.
As of 13 November, it seems that the Party of Regions has won mayoral elections in 10 of a total of 24 oblast centers, with the sharpest contender, Batkivshchina (associated with the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc) winning in only two. In Kharkov, the electoral result is still disputed, with the Party of Regions barely winning over the Batkivshchina nominee. The rest of the total of 24 major centers has been won by a hodgepodge of various parties not represented in the national legislature. Statistics at the national level are more than sparse. According rough estimates in the press, the Party of Regions won 36.2 percent of the total vote cast in oblast centers (turnout estimated at 50 percent). Batkivshchina emerged with 13.1 percent, Front of Change 6.8 percent, Communist Party of Ukraine 5.9 percent, and thereafter minor parties only. The Kiev Post suggests that the Party of Regions nationally won about 66 percent of the votes and mayors in 118 mayors at the mid administrative level of Ukraine. There are so far, as far as I know, no similar display of results indicating the performance of the opposition.
The most conspicuous result of the elections is twofold. First, the results have delayed; second, the alleged introduction of a party-based system does not boost national parties and blocs, other than the Party of Regions. These generalizations cover numerous political disputes over the results. The Yatseniuk party Front of Change has demanded a vote recount in Lugansk, Donetsk, and Zaporozhiya, and Batkivshchnia has challenged results in Lvov, Ternopil and Kiev. Moreover, even coalition partners have been at loggerheads. In Lugansk, the Party of Regions nominee allegedly won over the Communist Party of Ukraine nominee with 21 votes only. The elections were hardly a success. As the daily Kommersant Ukraine stated “the attempt to force a party-based preference on society in the mayoral elections has failed completely”. It could perhaps also be added that the structural changes have altered the conditions for competitiveness.
In transition studies, there has for long been talk about the electoral fallacy. Conclusions on democratic development cannot be made by observing the elections only. In this perspective, it would be sufficient to conclude that local elections have indeed taken place in Ukraine, and that holding elections has become routine. Routines never take place in a void, however, and the context of structural changes is sometimes crucial. Put in other words: elections may return politicians to office by means of a relatively, on the face of things, pluralist vote, but the political playing field should also be equal for all contenders, that is—elections should be fair. The highly preliminary electoral results of the regional elections in Ukraine indicate that the rapidly changing framework has had a highly diverse effect of on the political arena, emboldening some, and discouraging others. The few exit polls that have been made public seem to confirm this, as the total number of votes in favor of the ruling coalition clearly outweighs the combined votes of the opposition, with about 45 percent against less than 20 percent. Moreover, the field of competitive parties is more fragmented, due to the restrictions put on registration and on political blocs and electoral alliances.
International observer organizations, like the OSCE, have criticized the changes introduced in the electoral law. Critical remarks on the reversal of the 2004 constitutional amendment have also been heard from the EU. The effect remains to be seen, however. What both should note is that the new design of the political arena favored large-scale coalitions in power, discouraging the formation of a unified opposition. In addition, the changes in the institutional framework have created new contradictions—like the decision to lift restrictions on party allegiance in the Rada, while emphasizing the party as a core entity in local elections. Given the current power balance, this favors the ruling coalition, while substantially reducing not only the incentives for the opposition, but also its opportunities.
In sum, the two tales of institutional change in Ukraine illustrate the shades of grey currently at work. The electoral democracy trajectory starting in 2004 with shared powers may, in the worst case, prove short-lived. In a slightly better scenario, the local elections may prove the point that making changes to the framework upsets the polity in a manner that reduces the performance of those that govern. This brings us back to Dickens’ “worst of times and the best of times”. Elections took place. Good. Worse still: the local elections of 2010 indicate is that monitoring changes is just as important as monitoring elections. Finally, elections are sometimes only a harbinger of the better times if power is shared. This is the tale of the Ukrainian polity that is yet to be told.
- Paul D’Anieri, Understanding Ukrainian Politics: Power, Politics and Institutional Design, London, 2007, p. 5.
- Timothy Frye, “Presidents, Parliaments and Democracy: Insights from the Post-Communist World”, in Andrew Reynolds (ed), The Architecture Of Democracy: Constitutional Design, Conflict Management, And Democracy, 2002.
- M Steven Fish, “Stronger Legislatures, Stronger Democracies”, Journal of Democracy, vol. 17, no. 1, 2006.
- Denys Kovryzhenko, Regulation of Political Parties in Ukraine: The Current State and Direction of Reforms, Agency for Legislative Initiatives, 2010.
- Serhiy Kudelia, “Revolutionary Bargain: The Unmaking of Ukraine’s Autocracy Through Pacting”, Journal of Communist and Transition Studies, vol. 23, no. 1, 2004.
- Kommersant, 3 March 2010, at: http://www.kommersant.ua/doc.html?DocID=1330770&IssueId=7000387, accessed 8 November 2010.
- Radio Ukraine, http://www.nrcu.gov.ua/index.php?id=148&listid=131604, accessed on 5 November 2010.
- Kyiv Post, 8 November, 2010, at: http://www.kyivpost.com/news/politics/detail/89186/#ixzz14gUgMd1g
- Kommersant, 8 November, 2010, at: http://www.kommersant.ua/doc.html?docId=1534981, accessed on 8 November 2010.
- Kommersant, 9 November 2010, at: http://www.kommersant.ua/doc.html?DocID=1535578&IssueId=7000614, accessed 9 November 2010.
- Kommersant, 8 November 2010, at: http://www.kommersant.ua/doc.html?DocID=1534981&IssueId=7000613, accessed 9 November 2010.