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30 March, 2012

A Fair Election… But Are the “Rules of the Game” Fair?

The forthcoming election could be a small step forward, if opposition forces cooperate with the same goals this time around

As a member of the Council of Europe, Ukraine has “undertaken commitments to hold free elections at reasonable intervals by secret ballot, under conditions which will ensure the free expression of the opinion of the people in the choice of the legislature.” (Protocol 1, Article 3)

No two countries have the same way of “ensuring the free expression of the opinion of the people”. Many countries revise their election rules in light of experience and in the wake of the poor functioning of a previous election. In the PACE-report “Functions of Institutions in Ukraine” debated 26 January, the co-rapporteurs go a bit further:

“In principle, each country has the right to choose the election system that suits its needs and national peculiarities best, as long as the system is in line with European standards and on the condition that it produces democratic results. As the majoritarian, the fully proportional, as well as the mixed system have all failed to produce the desired democratic results, the Assembly has recommended the adoption of a regional proportional system based on open lists and multiple regional constituencies. In the view of the Assembly, such a system would ensure intra-party democracy and voter transparency, as well as strengthen regional representation and increase accountability”

I very much agree with these words.

But was the historic failure a deciding factor for the majority in the Verhovna Rada when — in November last year — they approved the fifty-fifty system for the next election? This does not seem to be the case.

It is obvious that the present election system has to be changed, because it gave voters nearly no chance to influence which candidates the voters could choose from. But to go back to the former system, that gave so many possibilities to manipulate the electorate, cannot be seen as an attempt to “learn from the past”.

More reasonable is the attempt by current elected MPs to save their own mandates. And this is naturally not surprising. Elected MPs in any country are very interested in getting reelected!

The difference comes via the election system they use to secure reelection. Whom must they serve and please? Voters? The establishment?

For too long there has been a missing link between ordinary voters and the Rada. It is not a bottom-up system. It is not a system where you can vote for "my MP".

On the top of all these problems comes the possible grave unfairness that the leader of the opposition and other leading politicians may not be able to run in the election!

How to choose the “least bad” MPs in the forthcoming election within the fifty-fifty system?

The fact is that the system will be the “rule of the game” in October. In my opinion, the fact that nearly all of the opposition parties have made a common declaration about cooperation is at least a good sign. But such a declaration is only the beginning of a very difficult process. The goal for the opposition must be to avoid The Party of Regions (PR) winning the election despite – according to opinion polls – having the support of only 20% of voters.

Another goal will be to avoid voter apathy. Before the local election (according to OPORA), after the decision of the fifty-fifty system, only 8.5% expected a fair result. And only 50% actual participated in the local election. One could easily expect similar voter distrust today.

Half of the future MPs will be elected in a constituency. The candidate that gets most votes in the first run will be elected. This system gives the relatively biggest party (at the moment in most areas the PR) the best chances of winning the seat. Especially since the PR will have administrative resources at its disposal.

So the opposition can only win mandates in these first-past-the-post districts if they agree on one common, local candidate.

This means that a lot of “deals” in every constituency must be agreed. History shows that such deals are not easy to uphold.  And, for the sake of voters' influence, it is important that the agreement be about a trusted, local figure. Not just a deal from the top of the involved parties to distribute candidates like playing cards. Therefore local grassroots participants from all of the opposition forces should start to cooperate and influence the process from now and into October.

The other half of the MPs will be elected from the party’s nationwide closed nominated lists. Since there is a 5% threshold, it is important not to split into a lot of parties.

Those that decide to run should also try to have openness in forming their lists. The system is closed, yes, but the party can — all over the country — decide to take local forces into account anyway. This will also contribute to a voter’s hope for influence and consequently, to his enthusiasm. And, last but not least, for the sake of Ukraine's future, these lists must be used to avoid too many oligarch opportunists getting elected!

Romewas not built in a day. But the forthcoming election could be a small step forward, if opposition forces cooperate with the same goals this time around.

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