On the eve of the elections: trends
1. Decentralization has made mayors very powerful and increased communities’ budgets. Voters do not understand that it was not the efficiency of their local authorities that has increased but only the amount of money. That is why community leaders now have much more support than their predecessors did.
2. Taxpayers as a rule do not know the actual amount of taxes they pay and what taxes they pay to local budgets. On the other hand, fiscal information in the regions is often unavailable even upon information requests and local media almost do not cover this topic. As a result, voters are unaware of the powers of local governments, budgets of their localities, how these budgets are spent, and how much influence local governments have on their lives.
3. COVID-19, less money for the majority of households, and an ever-increasing lack of trust in politics made people much less active politically. New parties and candidates had hard times trying to reach their voters. Thus, it is not surprising that the turnout was low.
4. Introduction of a proportional electoral system without single-mandate districts in small communities with a population of over 10 thousand people substantially restricted the access to politics for community members. Local leaders, e.g. heads of housing cooperatives, refused nomination because they did not want to be associated with any political party. That is not surprising since public trust in political projects is quite low. When some of the community leaders quit, election campaigning became easier for people ready to associate themselves with parties and defend their own business interests. There is a chance that newly elected councils of local communities will be even more corrupt than their predecessors.
5. Political parties have not developed their local branches, so their strategy was to compete not for voters, but for local leaders. As a result, instead of party members or ideological supporters party lists were full with freshly recruited local opinion leaders.
6. Young parties and politicians lacked the skills. An analysis of their election platforms and slogans showed without a doubt that mostly they were people that did neither understand the problems of their communities nor knew about the powers of local governments.
7. More experienced nominees in competition with each other used defamation, black PR, and promised the public things that local governments have no powers to do. In the end, no one has tried to raise the standards of a political discussion.
8. During the campaign, parties put emphasis on issues that local governments have no authority to address. In particular: a language of education and communication, the power balance between the Government vs. local authorities, and the geopolitical choice of Ukraine:
- Unrealistic promises that local governments cannot fulfill could be found in the election platforms of the following parties: Proposition, European Solidarity, For the Future, Opposition Platform — For Life, Servant of the People, Sharii’s party, Batkivshchyna, Vilkul’s Block — Ukrainian Perspective.
9. Expectations that the new proportional open-list system where voters can pick their candidates will force big parties to develop their regional branches have not been proved true. Instead, local councils were taken either by mayors’ small parties or franchise parties. That was the strategy of Proposition and For the Future throughout Ukraine, Svoboda — in the West, Opposition Platform — For Life — in the East.
The aftermath of the local elections
- Parliamentary parties have lost elections in big cities: they had little chance to really compete with mayors and their local political parties in most of the cities. The most common reason why the parliamentary parties lost the local elections was that they do not have active regional offices there. Thus, in many big cities Servant of the People, Batkivshchyna, and Holos got very little support.
- In the future, low turnout (37% on average) will become a tool for opposition to undermine the legitimacy of local governments in many communities, and that can even lead to early elections.
- Servant of the People got the highest number of local councils not because its brand is still popular or it has many strong regional offices, but because it had managed to engage more local leaders. Most of the elected councilors will dissociate themselves from the party and will not help to establish regional branches or even go with the party for the next parliamentary election.
- A high number of councilors from For the Future party, which is connected to the tycoon Ihor Kolomoiskyi, is also connected to the strategy of engaging local leaders. Unlike the Servant of the People, For the Future will keep its mayors and councilors using bribes and promises to give them even more power. Regional offices of the party will support it during the next parliamentary elections. Overall, For the Future has reached quite deep in local communities and will substantially influence local politics.
- Problems with the new electoral system, and specifically new ballots, were relatively small only because the majority of the voters were dedicated supporters of their parties and received instructions from candidates and parties on how to vote. When the turnout will be higher and less politically active voters catch up, there will be a big problem.
What will happen after the elections?
1. Although the President and his party got the highest number of local councilors, at the end of the day they were totally defeated. Zelensky has no control over even a single oblast or a big city neither via local governments nor via local state administrations, which have become mere decorations after the decentralization.
2. Inevitably, there will be a conflict between the center and local elites, and the center will definitely lose. There are several reasons for that:
- the pandemic will force the center to try to introduce lockdown restrictions while local elites will ignore the center’s demands because lockdown deals substantial damage to local budgets and undermines economical points of growth in local communities;
- the economic crisis will force the Government to try to take money back from the regions, and that is almost impossible considering how much more public trust have local authorities;
- regional elites will try to use the center’s helplessness to get as much power as they can, and that creates a threat of federalization and separatism.
3. In those communities where mayors have a majority of their own, authoritarian tendencies will grow because local councilors are dependent on the mayor either as subordinates or as business associates.
4. In communities without a majority loyal to the mayor, mayors will be dismissed by councils that will decide to assume direct control over their communities.
What has to be done?
- President’s influence on local governments has to come to end, the power over local state authorities has to be granted to the Government. That will establish a more reliable separation of powers and fix the imbalance between the executive branch and local government. The idea of prefects overseeing local governments should be abandoned. Instead, there is a need to delineate the powers between local governments and local executive bodies. The state has to keep its presence in the regions, though: it has to implement complex state policies, counter threats like COVID-19 or Russian aggression.
- Electoral rules have to be changed by reinstating the single-member district plurality system for local communities and allowing self-nomination there.
- Data on local budgets and other indicators necessary for the assessment of the quality of local policies’ implementation has to become more open to the public, in particular, be published in more user-friendly formats.
- Public broadcasting and regional media have to receive more assistance, their development is a priority.
What can civil society do?
- To work more with local communities that are able to communicate and interact with one another (housing cooperatives, initiatives at the level of a city block or village street) instead of trying to be a mediator between authorities and the people.
- To focus on the political education of local communities’ leaders. These leaders should become more engaged in political processes and communicate them to their communities, they should have skills and knowledge to be able to compete with old political elites that, despite several revolutions and overall democratization Ukraine has undergone, remain the same.
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