On October 25, 26.7 million Ukrainian voters were called to elect their 168,450 local and regional representatives in the first local elections since the Maidan. With a relatively low turnout of 46.62 percent, the elections represented a genuine test of popularity for the government as well as a barometer of popular discontent over the course of reforms and social advances in Ukraine. Several important features characterized the local elections.
Sociology of the vote
The elections were based on a new electoral law passed by the Rada on July 14, 2015 and swiftly signed by President Petro Poroshenko. The law suffers from many crippling shortcomings, the first of which being the complexity of its three separate electoral system and the intricacies of how votes transcribed into seats in local Radas. Furthermore, the introduction of a 5 percent threshold for political parties on the “open list” system for the election of members of regional, district, city councils, and municipal district councils implied that many popular candidates failed to be elected as their party of affiliation did not pass the bar. The new law also critically lacked a provision for IDPs to vote.
132 political parties were registered for the local elections, ranging from the biggest national formations to small, one-man parties created for the occasion. As such, when looking at the results at the territorial level, the 2015 elections confirmed the existence of political pluralism in Ukraine. For the first time, consecrated the entry of genuine political choice and democratic alternative in the Eastern and Southern regions of Ukraine.
The elections also reinforced the fact that most Ukrainian political formations have a populist tendency, a useful and worthwhile agenda aimed at criticizing the government without bringing genuine counter-proposals or solutions.
If Ukrainians voted for their local representatives, the platforms and debates were far from tackling regional and local matters. In this, the irruption of national issues in the debate was constant, with many candidates basing their discourse on national security or the reform of the army – issues that are not addressed at the local level. Furthermore, the October elections confirmed that people chose to make a “sanction vote” against the government, thus assimilating local issues with national ones.
Elections were altogether cancelled in several Eastern municipalities (Mariupol, Krasnoarmiysk, Svatova), mostly due to avoidable technical issues regarding the printing of ballots. Also, the elections did not take place in Crimea as well as in separatist-controlled territories in Donbas. The Central Election Commission (CEC) was also forced to cancel the polls in 91 local councils in the Donetsk region and 31 local councils in the Luhansk region, corresponding to a 30-km wide “exclusion zone” where security and political conditions were not met.
Finally, the October elections marked the irruption of small ‘technical’ parties in Ukraine, namely administrative tools created by the means of political technology with the purpose of confusing voters and scatter the results. The financing and complete instrumentalization of such parties by private power brokers were criticized for its lack of transparency.
The most prominent of those ‘technical’ formations is the Ukrainian Union of Patriots (UKROP, meaning ‘dill’), believed to be a political tool created and financed by oligarch Ihor Kolomoyskiy, currently at war with President Poroshenko after he was sacked from his position of Dnipropetrovsk governor last March. This feature created a complicated political engineering but confirmed the overarching presence of oligarchs behind power politics in Ukraine at the local level, with the aim to undermine both the ruling power and the opposition.
Mixed outcome and aftermath of the election
The outcome of the elections somewhat justified the legitimacy of the ruling coalition and generally kept the existing political balance at the national level.
The Bloc of Poroshenko/UDAR-Solidarity experienced a double decline compared to the 2014 parliamentary elections, both as a political force and because of the popularity drop of its leader. Yet the decline did not transcribe fully in the results, as the formation obtained solid results in the West and center of the country. The BoP, however, was not able to politically monopolize the territorial constituencies of Ukraine, and will thus have to create alliances with various formations in order to strengthen its local basis – and therefore ensure paramount political stability at the State level.
Whereas Fatherland (BuYT), the party of Yulia Tymoshenko, obtained rather poor results, formations such as Samopomish and Svododa confirmed their place as influential players in the Ukrainian landscape.
In Eastern and Southern regions, the Opposition Bloc fared rather well and gathered a sizable amount of “sanction voters”, i.e. those voting against the government. The party also benefited from a go-to-vote effect, as its electors are staunch and highly motivated.
For the first time in Ukraine, mayors in 35 cities with more than 90,000 registered voters were elected on a two-round, absolute majority system. This caused fierce competition and offered the chance to organize second round of elections, scheduled for November 15, in many key cities of Ukraine. For instance, the Eastern city of Dnipropetrovsk saw a fierce battle between UKROP candidate Borys Filatov and Oleksandr Vilkul, running on an Opposition Bloc ticket and backed by the BoP and oligarchs like Rinat Akhmetov. Both candidates will face each other in a heated second round, amongst rumors of dirty campaigning, voters’ fraud, and manipulations. The political fight in Dnipropetrovsk embodies the use of political technology at its best (or worse) in Ukraine.
The Ukrainian political landscape was not considerably altered in the aftermath of the local elections and tectonic shifts should not be expected right away at the national level. If the parliamentary coalition remains shaky, it should hold on a little longer. Overall, the October ballot confirmed political pluralism in Ukraine and the fragmented nature of the political scene, with the lingering “East-West divide” still clearly visible, if not widened. Yet in most regions, clear-cut majorities did not emerge, thus preventing the monopolization of power by the BoP. Coalitions will now have to be formed at all territorial levels of Ukraine.
The political future of the country is not set in stone. Depending on the final results, and especially political restructuring in Eastern regions, the President might have to reshuffle the government (and notably sack Prime Minister Yatseniuk) in the coming weeks.