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15 March, 2021  ▪  

Top party in town

How party-based election affected campaigns in small communities of Prykarpattia

The party-based election system was a key episode of the latest local race even in the most remote areas of Ivano-Frankivsk Oblast. This was a regular election for some unified territorial communities (UTCs), and a snap election for others as every community was established at a different time. UTC heads and potential candidates interpret the new rule differently.

The champions of decentralization have managed to engage the maximum amount of public funding and gain a lot of experience by the time the election arrived. All of their work prior to the election brought them results both in terms of agitation and in terms of their election platforms. Parties spent a long time trying to recruit them. 

Pechenizhyn UTC was the first one to go for decentralization. Together with his UTC, Ihor Dovirak won Community Worth a Million nationwide competition. In the local election, he ran with Platforma Hromad[Platform of Communitiesthat emerged after the Solidarity-Petro Poroshenko Bloc split up in Ivano-Frankivsk Oblast Council. Dovirak won the race with over 38%. During the campaign in September 2020, Dovirak was still a member of the European Solidarity that emerged after the renaming of Petro Poroshenko Bloc. Right now, the party needs him more than he needs the party. 

«Thanks to open party lists, every future head will build his or her team in the local council and the community will know these people,» Dovirak said in the run-up to the election. «It will be their collective responsibility. At the same time, there is a risk of falsifications and damaged ballots, and of an overwhelming number of candidates. Prykarpattia elects parties of a similar pro-European vector. But they will all offer their lists which will dilute the votes.»

In Dovirak’s UTC, his former party fellow Dmytro Lashchuk was seen as a rival for him. Lashchuk is now associated with Za Maibutnie [For Future] party. He did not run for the UTC head but he brought six deputies out of 26 to the UTC council, making it the biggest faction there. Vasyl Stefurak, a local deputy and chair of the Association of Prykarpattia Shepherds, is an authority in the UTC. He appeared at the meeting of the Proposition party but did not run for UTC head. According to Stefurak, he and shepherds in Prykarpattia need the support of the Proposition, the newly established party of the mayors, in promoting their products across Ukraine. He has no time or motivation for anything else. Eventually, Stefurak did not become deputy although Proposition gained three seats in the village council. 

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Many UTCs started facing political pressure long before the election. In August 2020, Yuriy Ivasiuk, head of the regional offshoot of the All-Ukrainian Association of UTCs, posted on Facebook that several UTC heads from Prykarpattia asked the Association to help them with the provocations against them and their employees by law enforcement agencies. These included demands to help someone’s business, allocate land or authorize outdoor advertising. According to Mykola Shykor, head of Vytvytska UTC, someone provoked a setup scene with the proposal of a bribe to him in which the police showed up. Shykor was detained and suspended from office. But the case was closed given the lack of evidence. Eventually, the same «businessman» who was involved in the provocation showed up in four other UTCs. Mykola Shykor ran in the election. He claimed that the provocations were ordered by his opponents, including people associated with the system of the Interior Ministry – one of them promoted to general in 2007. All these people represented three different parties, but two shared the same last name. Shykor ran as a self-nominated candidate as his UTC has under 10,000 voters, so he did not need to make any deals with politicians. He ended up losing the election with a gap of nearly 100 votes. The winner was Platform of Communities’ Vasyl Ilnytskyi, one of the people by the same last name mentioned above.  

By contrast, Andriy Hunda, head of Pasichnianska UTC, one of the youngest communities, would not have been able to register for the election without a party. He says that the legislators put a knife in the chest of local self-governance and went to the Constitutional Court with this issue. He believes that this is a violation of his constitutional right to be elected.

«Personalist parties are the biggest cause of divides between us Ukrainians,» Hunda complains. «These changes wipe out the fundamental principles of the UTC concept. The communities united to develop. I’m sad to state that, with these changes, we are once again being driven into the political polemic that leads to nothing good. We must have the right to self-nomination. We want to develop our land without politics. But here’s an interesting paradox: they’ve left self-nomination for the Verkhovna Rada and abolished it for unified communities.» 

In fact, the new Election Code that regulated the October 25 local election restricted self-nomination to the Verkhovna Rada too. 

As a result, Hunda went to the Platform of Communities and gained a comfortable victory of over 52%.

Ivan Verezhak, ex-mayor of Kotykivka, a village in Horodenka County, sees more benefits than disadvantages in the party system in UTCs. He has been member of the Ukrainian Halychyna Party for five years now. «The party system has long been here,» he believes. «Everything depends on who shapes the local coalition and how it will work in the community – for or against it. There are some threats in this. For example, when a party starts dictating how its members should vote after elections, by contrast to the values and the ideology it declared before. Unless I do that, they can withdraw me. This is unfair. At the same time, that mechanism is good for removing an imprudent deputy. Another danger of party coalitions is that some villages within UTCs can be represented by more deputies who will be taking over the budget.»

Verezhak is convinced that village «problem solvers» can have more influence locally than the parties. They can influence the sympathies of the community and turnout in elections. But they have their personal interests in this. Verezhak plans to «seek support from the actual opinion leaders and people with a good reputation in the community.»  In the previous election, Verezhak ran for the head of Horodenka town community and landed third with 15%. His Ukrainian Halychyna Party gained three seats out of 34 in the town council.

The campaign was intense in Prykarpattia cities and towns, by contrast to Ivano-Frankivsk, the oblast center where the current mayor Ruslan Martsinkiv had de facto zero competitors. In Kolomyia, the second biggest and most politically active city in the oblast, the number of candidates for the UTC head was almost three times over that in Ivano-Frankivsk.

Bohdan Stanislavskyi, the winner, and Ihor Sliuzar – both self-nominated – came first and second. One example, however, illustrates the trends in party building in Ukraine. Until recently, Nazariy Todoriv, one of the candidates, chaired the Konyk Help charity foundation under independent MP Andriy Ivanchuk. He ran with Za Maibutnie in the election, irritating many locals who do not approve of the combination of charity and politics.

Todoriv was also criticized for being inconsistent. In 2019, he supported Andriy Ivanchuk, the current FPTP MP from that constituency, as his photos with Ivanchuk’s symbols illustrate. Ivanchuk’s opponent was Sluha Narodu’s [Servant of the People] Andriy Shevchenko who was helped by Oleksandr Shevchenko, the owner of the Bukovel skiing resort, ex-candidate for presidency and a well-known figure in the oblast. In 2020, Oleksandr Shevchenko joined Za Maibutnie as a key player, and this was exactly the party that nominated Todoriv. 

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Mykhailo Dzhohola, a consultant on local self-governance with USAID’s DOBRE project, has been working with his team in Prykarpattia communitiesfor several years now. His team consults residents and local authorities on how to design community strategic development plan, control budget expenditures and monitor the work of local deputies.

«Maybe, we should have done this earlier, not before the election. Candidates for UTC heads have to find parties or respond to the parties that have been headhunting them within a matter of a few weeks. This makes registration more complicated and delays the process,» he commented in the run-up to the election in September. «A positive element is that the community can develop its segments. Normally, 10-15 villages make up one UTC. It has been problematic to convene a session until now. The deputies who work without pay have their jobs or businesses, or they go to work abroad. With the party system, a future UTC head can expect a certain number of people in the council. The bigger the community, the better the organization. If the party is represented in the oblast council, that already makes it an extensive network that can interact and influence important decision-making. This is one of the instruments for both the head and the deputies.»

He also pointed to some other risks of fast adjustment of elections to parties. Firstly, people can join the parties that are not pro-Ukrainian as they have just a few days to find one. And these parties can thus gain representation in councils. Secondly, UTC heads have ended up with far more reputation risks as they will be associated with the mistakes of the parties that tend to provoke scandals from now on.

Olena Nechvidova, Ivano-Frankivsk


Translated by Anna Korbut

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