ZOiS Spotlight 43/2020

Local elections in Ukraine: one step closer to decentralisation

by Gwendolyn Sasse 25/11/2020
Vote counting after the local election in Ivano-Frankivsk oblast in Western Ukraine. © imago images / Ukrinform

On 25 October, Ukraine took an important step in its ongoing decentralisation efforts. The country held its first local elections since the decentralisation process began in 2015, with second-round run-offs in close mayoral races on 15 and 22 November. These elections are particularly relevant in the bottom-up rebuilding of the Ukrainian state and mark substantial progress towards establishing accountability from below. 

The decentralisation measures created new structures—most importantly, amalgamated local communities with significantly higher budgetary resources and decision-making powers on issues that matter to local populations. These communities have now held their first elections, linking people’s expectations of mayors and local councils more closely to the new structures.

Local elections, local issues

The dynamics of local elections are easily misunderstood. Many analysts have presented the outcome of Ukraine’s recent elections only as a defeat for president Volodymyr Zelenskyi and his party, Servant of the People, whose candidates came second or third in many mayoral, local, and regional races. This is, in fact, a misrepresentation of the context and result of the elections.

Local elections are not directly comparable with presidential or parliamentary contests, and therefore Ukraine’s latest results cannot be measured against the landslide victories of Zelenskyi and his party in 2019. At the local level, voters’ motivations follow a different logic: local issues,personalities, and trade-offs dominate local elections. Moreover, Zelenskyi's party only came into existence in 2019, so it made its first inroads into local politics with these elections.

It is obvious that the president had underestimated the challenge of introducing a new party at the local level. His own decreasing popularity across the country further limited his party’s appeal. Nevertheless, Servant of the People has now secured widespread representation on local and regional councils and therefore has a chance to root itself in Ukraine’s local political landscape. Whether the party will use this chance is an open question.

Towards more democratic decision-making?

The main outcome of the recent elections is a more colourful local political landscape. The party Opposition Platform—For Life, associated with the pre-Euromaidan government elites, performed well in south-east Ukraine. It maintained its influence rather than regaining power—as did the European Solidarity bloc of former president Petro Poroshenko in western regions. Many local parties are the creations of mayors and influential economic elites.

Yet, the question is whether the more diverse local and regional councils will begin to move towards more democratic decision-making based on debate and compromise in the interests of local communities. In 2015–2020, local decision-making remained opaque, but a closer look at local council voting in that period suggests an unlikely degree of harmony. Actual decision-making must therefore have taken place elsewhere, in particular by mayors. The relationship between mayors and councils still needs to be clarified as part of the decentralisation process.

From the pandemic to plunging presidential popularity

A major trend in Ukraine’s local elections has been the confirmation of incumbent mayors, including in big cities like Kyiv, Kharkiv, and Odesa. Voters rewarded incumbents when they were seen to deliver local services—even if, as in Kharkiv and Odesa, these services have been accused of large-scale corruption. Thus, local considerations of accountability can still be far removed from the ideal envisaged by decentralisation.

Covid-19 played an important role in these elections. The pandemic was a significant factor in reducing turnout, which stood at about 37 per cent. According to data from a nationally representative telephone survey of 2,000 respondents, commissioned by the Identities and Borders in Flux (IBIF) project and conducted by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology in September–October 2020, dissatisfaction with the management of the pandemic and fear of Covid-19 were important motivations behind votes against the incumbents in mayoral elections.[1]

The president’s popularity played another large part in the elections. Zelenskyi had added a legally questionable referendum to the ballots. Financed by his party, the initiative primarily served to draw attention to the president and distract from local issues. The questions in the referendum ranged from whether to endorse life sentences for corruption charges and legalise cannabis to whether to create a special economic zone in the non-government-controlled areas in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region.

The referendum reflected Zelenskyi's populist style and his urge to stop the downward spiral of his approval ratings. According to the IBIF survey, general approval of the president stood at 43 per cent, while 56 per cent of respondents approved of local councils or mayors. Thirty-nine per cent assessed the president’s management of the pandemic positively, while 50 per cent saw local councils or mayors as having managed the crisis very well or fairly well.

According to the survey, about a quarter of Ukraine’s population links positive changes in daily life at the local level to the decentralisation process, while 47 per cent do not; 28 per cent did not know how to answer this question. Thus, the reforms are only beginning to produce visible improvements. New local communities have held their first elections, and new incentives have been created for parties at the local, but mayors will have to prove themselves within the new structures. Last but not least, Zelenskyi will have to take the local level of Ukrainian politics more seriously than he has done so far.

[1] The survey was part of the Identities and Borders in Flux (IBIF) project, which is financed by the British Academy, George Washington University, and ZOiS. Cooperation partners are Dr Olga Onuch of the University of Manchester, Prof. Henry Hale of George Washington University, Dr Volodymyr Kulyk of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, and Prof. Gwendolyn Sasse of ZOiS.

Gwendolyn Sasse is the director of ZOiS.