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29 March, 2011  ▪  Hanne Severinsen

From the bottom up

It’s time for Ukrainians to demand open-list voting to enable local party members to influence the way these lists are filled and to get involved in the political decision-making process

Though Ukraine has succeeded in holding several democratic elections in the 20 years after the Independence, many people still feel that they play no role in the policy of the party they have voted for and that their interests are not fully represented in the Verkhovna Rada ( the Parliament of Ukraine).

A well-organized election should not be treated as a panacea for establishing true democracy in which voters are involved in the political processes and have real influence on political decisions. Democracy is not something that comes out of the blue. It demands hard work based on political awareness, political culture and history of the country that is being democratized. This work includes work on mistakes in one's own experience; and search for examples of the best practices implemented in democratic countries.

Until 2004, Ukraine had a mixed election system: 225 MPs were elected in single-mandate (“first-past-the-post”) districts and the other 225 from closed party lists. This model is seriously flawed in that it cannot secure equal representation of the population in a large state. Furthermore, it precipitates the division of the country into the East and the West, because each constituency usually favors and elects those who have most sway locally.

In reality, the representational system has facilitated the election of local “independent” oligarchs, who switch over to the pro-government party the day after the vote. For example, in 2002, a majority opposed to President Leonid Kuchma was dissolved soon after the election, because “independent” MPs have deserted to the “For a United Ukraine” political bloc, which also included the Party of Regions. (Maybe this is the reason one gets an impression that the Party of Regions wants to bring this voting system back?)

Then the Verkhovna Rada decided to switch to the party-list proportional representation voting according to which all 450 MPs are elected from closed party lists. The result of such shift means that people won’t elect a truly representative legislative body. By voting in this way, Ukrainian constituency selects only “the first five representatives” out of whole group. That is clear as election campaigns focus mainly on a few party leaders, the rest of the participants are determined by the party behind closed doors.

Voters are unaware what criteria are really used to make these lists. There is no transparency — only legends and rumors make it possible to learn that some people are on the list because their popularity, other (a majority?) for their financial support, and still other because of their “customer loyalty”. As a result of these practices, Ukrainian citizens may wake up the day after an election and find they have voted for people that have nothing to do with their regions, essentially having cast their votes for those they would never elect consciously.

Moreover, voters need to understand that some MPs “change colors” immediately after the vote, because they are “persuaded” to switch to another party: they either get an adequate financial offer, or become blackmailed that their business will be destroyed. This could be perfectly seen last year.

Instead of a truly democratic bottom-up system in which voters have a right to express their opinion, Ukraine has a centralized top-down model which the Venice Commission and PACE have already criticized. Such a system does not reflect to the heterogeneous nature of the constituency and does not fully represent its interests. In paragraph 7.1.2 of PACE Resolution No. 1755 adopted in October 2010 is written “… repeats its recommendations about implementation of an electoral system that is based on proportional voting in multiple regional constituencies on open lists.”

Instead of reinforcing the multiparty system, the existing election system unfortunately empowers only the parties and their members that have common interests, namely, economic. This political system is not value-based. My conclusion is the following. Ukrainian history teaches us that both extremes should be avoided in the future: neither the plurality-majority voting systems, nor the existing proportional one with the single national district is a solution. However, a return to the former mixed system would be worse than any of the above mentioned.

There is no ideal model. None democratic system is without problems. Therefore, any changes have to start with a clear understanding of goals we want to achieve. In my opinion, the system has to be changed in the following way: first, it needs to be representative; second, it should enable voters to elect a particular individual; third, it should be focused on the geographical dimension.

In many democratic countries these goals are achieved through a system in which a constituency is represented by several MPs. A country is divided into constituencies, and each one elects a certain number of deputies. Candidates are nominated by parties, but the selection is made by citizens. Thus, the number of seats in parliament won by a party depends on the number of votes cast in its favor, but those who will sit in them are determined not by the party but directly by voters as they choose among candidates listed by the party they support.

In Denmark, party members in each district elect their candidate for the regional list. On the election day, individual voting determines who will be the MP of the party that makes it to the parliament. In Sweden, regional lists are made by regional party offices. This gives regional party representatives more influence than in the Danish system with its more pronounced dependence on voters.

A proportional election system usually brings to power more than two parties that cross the three- or four-percent threshold. In such case, parties have to be able to forge stable coalitions. But there has to be strict order here, and MPs must play by, rather than with, the rules.

In my opinion, Ukraine is too heterogeneous for the population to be represented by a mere two parties. Moreover, this situation carries a clear risk of an east–west split. Furthermore, Ukraine now has too many parties in which politicians are trying to shoot to fame. To this end, they create personal political forces without any local platform.

I persuasively ask Ukrainian voters to participate in forming local and regional organizations that would be guided by values in their activities. Power is not a goal unto itself, but a mean to turn ideas about Ukraine’s future into local and national priorities. In order to achieve this, you need to gather together either locally, or virtually on the Internet and discuss how specific ideas can be transformed into concrete actions. Above all, you need to demand rights to influence both the process of local candidates’ nomination and of political plans realization. This should transform current ideas about future into consistent actions.

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