Two Months to Prepare: How the Parties Coped with the 2020 Local Elections
How the rapid change of election laws affected the results of the voting and changed the electoral map of the country
This year’s local elections were held under a new system. In summer, parliament changed the election law, stipulating that candidates for the village, town, and city councils, where there are more than 10,000 voters, should be only from parties.
Some criticised this decision from the very beginning, and some, such as MPs from the “Servant of the People”, claimed that even such partisation is not enough. How will this affect decentralisation and local politics? Will real parties finally appear in Ukraine? We are dealing with the first consequences of the change in the electoral system.
The parties are getting stronger
The new election legislation has significantly changed the election process and, consequently, its results. Thus, if in the last local elections in 2015 almost 63% of deputies of local representative bodies were self-nominated, this year their number has decreased to 19%.
Also in 2015, the representation of one party in local councils did not exceed 8%. Batkivshchyna had the largest share — 7.7%. In 2020, this figure doubled. The parliamentary majority party “Servant of the People” is represented by 14.5% of local deputies, the rest of the all-Ukrainian parties have accumulated 8-10% of seats on the spot. However, it has also increased its representation in parties associated with influential regional politicians. These are “Hroisman’s Ukrainian Strategy” in Vinnytsia Region, “Kernes Bloc — Successful Kharkiv!” and “Svitlychna’s Together Bloc!” in the Kharkiv region, “Vilkul’s Bloc “Ukrainian Perspective” in Dnipro, and the “Proposal”, which was represented by some incumbent mayors in their regional centres, such as Dnipro, Mykolayiv, and Zhytomyr. All these parties appeared on the political landscape on the eve of the 2020 elections. By the way, voters perceive such localised political forces as “local parties”, although according to the law, parties can only be all-Ukrainian with representation in the regions.
The number of parties in local councils increased mainly due to changes in legislation. In July, parliament passed rules on so-called “partisation.” In communities of up to 10,000 voters, local council elections are held on a “majority” basis. Therefore, self-nominated candidates can take part in them. If there are more voters, then you can vote only on party lists, however, open ones. By analogy to the mayoral election, but there the condition is 75,000 voters. In other words, the role of local parties on the spot will significantly increase: previously, the threshold for elections under the proportional system started from 90 thousand voters.
In total, there are 460 cities, 885 urban-type settlements and more than 28,000 villages in Ukraine. 30% of citizens live in urban-type settlements and villages. So, the majority of voters this year said goodbye to the majority system.
Changing the “rules of the game” in turbo mode
Representatives of local communities resisted changes to the election rules. They demanded a proportional electoral system not to be introduced for district and region councils. After all, they “are called to defend the common interests of communities.” And if you reduce the threshold for a proportional electoral system for local representative bodies, then do it at least up to 50 thousand voters. This would preserve a majority system for all communities created on the basis of villages, settlements and small towns. Such an appeal against partisation collected the signatures of more than a thousand representatives of local authorities.
There was also another proposal — to set a threshold of 37 thousand voters. After all, according to the relevant associations, there are a little more than 36 thousand voters in the largest rural community.
Nevertheless, the law with lower thresholds was voted on July 16. And in a week, on July 23, it came into force.
Such a rapid change in the election rules contradicts the world’s practice, says Olha Aivazovska, coordinator of political programs for the Opora civic network, in a comment to VoxCheck.
“Partisation contradicts the norms of the Copenhagen Document, which contains election standards for OSCE countries that require competition between political party organisations and other organisations. In fact, it was not provided,” explains Aivazovska.
Moreover, such a “turbo regime” before the local elections was rather illegal. The fact is that the election legislation cannot be changed less than a year before the election. In this case, the new rules appeared three months before the voting. And the candidates had even less time.
A political franchise?
Registration of candidates for this year’s elections closed on September 24. And the final rules of the election signed by the president appeared two months before — on July 23.
Those who previously planned to go to the polls as self-nominated in their hometown had to change everything quickly.
Creating a party in Ukraine is a slow process. It takes 30-45 working days only for the registration itself — that is, a full one and a half to two months. And before that you need to collect a number of documents, hold a meeting, write a charter and a program. In addition, the Ministry of Justice may deny a party registration if formal requirements have not been met. In practice, this can take almost a year. That is, the chances of yesterday’s self-nominated candidates to register a new party before this year’s elections were slim. And many began to seek refuge in already existing all-Ukrainian organisations.
“Legal organisations — political parties — mostly acted as franchises. That is, each local political group has found a legal entity — a political party, to ensure the requirement of a ballot from the party organisation,” — said Aivazovska.
In addition, this year the parties have been given the right of the mandatory mandate, meaning, that they can recall elected representatives from their political forces from representative bodies. Together with the haste in selecting parties as candidates, this factor makes it possible to put pressure on local authorities by party “sponsors”. The All-Ukrainian Association of Communities representative, Ihor Abramiuk, says that all this can lead to full control of local councils by national parties.
“We wanted quality councils, and we wanted councils which people would trust. Instead, we will get those councils where there will be party influence and where there will be reporting not to the residents, but the council, so that they are not recalled,” — Abramiuk stressed before the law was passed.
In this form, the imperative mandate may contradict the very idea of decentralisation. After all, local leaders must be accountable first and foremost to local residents.
Already after the local elections, people’s deputies had other proposals. For example, to let only representatives of parliamentary parties to local elections. Such a statement was made, among others, by Servant of the People deputy, Olha Vasylevska-Smagliuk. She criticised the results of the local elections, saying that “regional” parties threaten the decentralisation. However, the exclusive right of parliamentary parties to participate in local elections may be contrary to the Constitution of Ukraine. After all, citizens have an equal right to be elected to public authorities and local governments and participate in public affairs management (Article 38).
European majority system
Self-nomination in politics is not a Ukrainian invention. Non-party candidates are allowed to run independently for local authorities in other European countries too. Similar to Ukrainian restrictions apply in Hungary, where the majority system to local councils ends in 10,000 people. For example, in Poland, the majority system in local elections is preserved for communities of up to 40,000 people.
The Slovak majority system allows the election of both self-nominated and individual candidates from lists to all community councils. To register, non-party candidates must collect the required number of signatures on a petition to the election commission — the more residents in the community, the more signatures. Thus, in communities with less than 50 citizens, it is necessary to collect ten signatures, up to 100 — 20, up to 500 — 40, up to 2 thousand — 100, up to 20 thousand — 200, up to 100 thousand — 400, more than 100 thousand — 600 signatures.
However, the presence of parties in local councils in European and Ukrainian cities may be felt differently. Thus, Olha Aivazovska notes that there are practically no ideological parties in Ukraine. Most of the current political forces are political projects with a legal entity. In Europe, however, the parties are older and have more of a historical context. Therefore, it is not yet possible to look for direct equivalents to the Ukrainian situation in Europe.
Under normal circumstances — that is, not a few months before the election — the requirement to go to the majority of local elections from the party, according to Olha Aivazovska, could contribute to the structuring of parties and their development, as institutions. Only during the 2020 elections time was limited. As a result, the election turned mainly into a race of political franchises and parties, known only in a few regions of the country.
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