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26 June, 2015

Threshold Elections

Major challenges in the upcoming election of regional governments

It’s almost guaranteed that local elections will take place as scheduled, in October 2015. The ruling elite did not succumb to the temptation to engage in unconstitutional ‘adventures’ in order to extend the life of today’s local councils. Instead, a lively debate is swirling around the question of electoral systems.

Ukrainians have long been demanding open party lists so that they might vote, not just for parties, but also for specific members of those parties. This way, local voters, not party bosses, get to decide who exactly will represent a given party in the local council. Of course, these bosses are squealing a bit, but they won’t find it so easy to wiggle free this time.

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Ukraine’s MPs are now coming up to fulfilling one of the key commitments they made in the coalition agreement for the first half-year: reforming legislation governing elections to local councils. In this regard, the coalition agreement states: “To change the local election system... preserving the majority (first-past-the-post) system for village and town councils, and introducing a proportional electoral system with open lists for local elections at other levels.”

It’s not entirely clear right now, however, which law will be in effect when the election campaign starts at the end of August. Several bills are competing for the approval of deputies and the even existing law is included in the list as an option.

Although the Speaker announced that five bills would be considered, they can all be grouped into three options: (1) adopting a revolutionary new bill with a classic open lists system; (2) a new electoral system as a compromise between voter preferences and the interests of the ruling elite; (3) elections according to the old rules if these two groups can’t come to an agreement. Insiders say that the most likely outcome will be (2) and that deputies will come up with a compromise in the legislature, that is, a new system that they will label “with open lists,” but party bosses will still have plenty of influence over who exactly in each party gets a chance at being elected to the councils.

And so they most often talk about the proposed bill that provides for only a single candidate from each party to be running in each riding. These candidates will not compete with candidates from other political parties in a given riding but will simply try to contribute the most votes to the party’s party list “account” so that the party can meet the threshold requirements. And those who gain the most votes in their individual ridings, compared to their fellow candidates from the party, will get to sit on the councils.

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Although the initiators of this bill will try to persuade everybody that it provides for open lists, it should be perfectly clear to all that this is only somewhat—and possibly not at all—what voters have in mind. The reality is that party bosses will be able to influence who among their candidates has the exclusive right to be nominated in the most receptive ridings. And so those who favor that party will be only be able to vote for the one candidate from that party in their riding.

Uncertainty around the new Constitution puts additional temptation in the way of lawmakers to postpone the adoption of the election law with a classic open lists system. The line here is that a new Constitution and nationwide administrative reform of the country’s territories are in the wind and these will automatically lead to new elections to local councils. Under the current Constitution, the next local elections are supposed to take place at the end of October 2015, which means that the newly elected councils will only be in office a year or two. So, if we just wait a little, goes the arguments, we will have elections according to the new rules... Undoubtedly, this is how Ukraine’s lawmakers will explain away why they rejected revolutionary reforms to the local election system right now.

The entire discourse around changes to the law on elections suggests that this is just one theme in a much larger-scale drama going on in Ukraine since Euromaidan. In its thirst for real, long-awaited changes, Ukraine’s civil society is—so far—in a cold war with the corrupt power elite that has once again sunk deeply into its cozy divans, from time to time saving itself with mimicry under the new political circumstances. Hints from Speaker Volodymyr Groisman that proposals are already circulating in the corridors of the Verkhovna Rada about raising the threshold are telling enough. Perhaps someone should remind the Speaker that higher electoral thresholds for parties are a feature of authoritarian regimes. For a Ukraine desperate to rotate and rejuvenate its elite, on the contrary, it’s very important to actually lower the threshold—if not drop it altogether.

There is also the risk that those elected on October 25, 2014 will be typical “temporarily elected” lawmakers who will look at the timeframe for carrying out administrative reform of the country’s territories and will simply wait for the next round of elections, which is supposed to take place as soon as these reforms are introduced. It’s easy enough to imagine the appetites of these “temps” in a corrupted state.

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Still, local races will definitely air out the constituents of local councils that were elected back in the first year of Viktor Yanukovych’s presidency. But this could be the only positive consequence following last October’s vote. Still, what’s also important is for the coalition to keep its word and make sure the new law on elections provides that “mayors of major cities go through two rounds based on the principle of an absolute majority of votes cast.” This principle should protect Ukrainians from the Chernovetskiy phenomenon, when a candidate rides into the mayor’s office on the backs of a well-fed electoral clique only a few percentage points ahead of his rivals—but not even close to a majority.

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