Ukraine’s recent elections indicate that external players, including the Kremlin, will find it more challenging to influence the nation’s domestic politics. 

Members of a local election commission count ballots at a polling station in Kiev on Oct. 25. Photo: AP

Recently Ukraine held elections to select representatives to regional, district, city, village and town councils, as well as heads of cities, townships and villages. In total, about 20,000 representatives were elected to local councils, as well as heads of villages, towns and cities.

The elections occurred after Ukraine passed a law on local elections on July 14, according to which representatives of regional, district, and city councils (869 entities in total) would be elected using a proportional system with open party lists. For mayors, as well as heads of towns and villages and representatives of village and settlement councils, the majority system would apply.

The International Election Observation Mission in Ukraine, which includes representatives of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE ODIHR), the Council of Europe and the European Parliament, monitored the results of the voting.

In total, of the 744 observers, 675 were long-term and short-term observers from the OSCE ODIHR, 57 were representatives from the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe, and 12 were observers from the European Parliament. In total, the mission included representatives from 44 countries.

Preliminary results from the 2015 elections

It is too early to talk about any final outcomes of these elections, but we can draw the first general conclusions.

The bloc of the Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, Solidarnost (Solidarity), in general, confirmed its status as the party in power, although it did not become the undisputed favorite. This indicates a negative result associated with the lack of concrete results from the party’s declared reforms. At the same time, the obtained results demonstrate a sharp weakening of administrative resources in the electoral process.

Other members of the parliamentary coalition, to varying degrees, have racked up rather more positive results. Except for the People’s Front Party of the Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, which did not directly participate in the elections, other political forces (Fatherland Party of Yulia Tymoshenko, Self Reliance Party of Andrey Sadoviy, and the Radical Party of Oleg Lyashko) will be well represented in all regional councils of Ukraine.

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Despite some improvement, the Freedom Party of Oleg Tyagnibok nevertheless did not manage to win in any of the regions of the country.

The Opposition Bloc of Yuri Boyko, composed mainly of former members of the Party of Regions, despite the fact that it finished on top in several regions, will not be able to claim sole and complete formation of regional councils in any of the country’s regions.    

According to the experts, an important outcome of the elections became the reduced likelihood of early parliamentary elections, because none of the parties that could initiate such a process, given the elections results, can now claim sufficient grounds to demand this.

According to observers and experts, in spite of the difficulties, there is every reason to consider these elections as an important step on the path of reforms, which are aimed, first and foremost, at the decentralization of power.

The worst fears did not come true. There were no attempts to disrupt the voting using a variety of methods, including organizing mass disturbances or setting off explosions in crowded places.

The campaign, as a whole, was carried out without any incidents or violations, except in Mariupol and Krasnoarmeysk in the Donetsk Region and Svatovo in the Lugansk Region. In the last two cases, the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Ukraine initiated criminal proceedings for obstructing the implementation of the right to vote (Article 157 of the Criminal Code of Ukraine).

Thus, the Svatovo City Election Commission on Oct. 25 recognized the elections to the Svatovo City Council in Lugansk Region as invalid. The reason was mistakes made in the printing of ballot papers, which resulted in the fact that not all political parties registered for the elections appeared on the ballots – which is a flagrant violation of electoral law.

For its part, the Donetsk District Court, having considered on Oct. 25 a claim filed by one of the candidates of the Opposition Bloc, acknowledged that the ballot papers in Krasnoarmeysk, Donetsk Region were made ​​in violation of the electoral law, since they were not printed by a printing company, but created by a private ​​entrepreneur.  

As for Mariupol, where voting did not take place due to lack of ballot papers, it was now decided to record into the unified register of offenses, a statement from the Central Elections Commission (CEC) of Ukraine about the violation of electoral law. After a detailed study of the situation, the CEC will decide on further actions.

The voter turnout was 46.62 percent (for comparison, during the previous elections, in October 2010, 52.24 percent of those eligible came out to vote). Several reasons are given for these figures. The first of these, as was noted by both foreign and Ukrainian observers and experts, is related to the issue of legal status of internally displaced persons. 

As a result, a significant number of displaced persons from the regions of Donbas, which were affected by the war, had moved to permanent residences in other regions of Ukraine, while residents of Crimea were not able to take part in the voting process.

Andrey Plenkovich, heading the group of observers from the European Parliament, also spoke about the shortcomings of the current electoral law. He stressed that shortcomings in the election process should serve as a stimulus for the Ukrainian authorities, in the context of the European integration course of Ukraine.

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The second reason is that a part of the electorate is apparently disillusioned with the reformist intentions of the current government. Clearly sensing the mood of the society on the eve of the vote, several representatives of the presidential team made ​​statements, saying that in the near future after the elections, the President was planning to announce a dramatic escalation of the reform processes. These statements were obviously meant to send the appropriate signal to the volatile electorate.

Another characteristic of this election, as was noted by observers, was the absence of systematic influence on voters from the side of the central administrative resource and a sharp reduction in its scope, when compared to the 2010 elections.

Looking ahead to 2017

Taking into account the future changes to the Constitution of Ukraine, in the part of decentralization of power (the relevant draft law, initiated by the President of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko, was preliminarily approved by the Ukrainian Parliament on August 31, and is now being revised by the relevant parliamentary committee), it is assumed that the local government authorities in these elections were being elected for only two-year terms. In October 2017, according to the draft law, new elections may be held, and then government authorities elected in these elections would serve five-year terms.

Nevertheless, even this current election campaign should not be underestimated. The local elections of 2015, on the one hand, symbolize the completion of the first cycle of the post-Maidan reformatted government in Ukraine (after the presidential and parliamentary elections in May and October 2014, respectively), and on the other hand – the beginning of a new, reformist period in the history of this state.

From a practical standpoint, these elections are the first preliminary step towards institutionalizing the process of decentralization of political power in Ukraine. In fact, for the first time in the history of independence of this state, a real attempt has been made to establish a balanced and effective relationship between the center and the periphery, shifting onto the shoulders of local governments some of the previous responsibilities of the center, and also giving them the appropriate authority.

In addition, if new elections will be declared in 2017, then the current elections would automatically have become a kind of preparation stage for the ones in 2017. The representatives of local authorities, elected in 2015, will try as much as possible to showcase their abilities, in order to be re-elected two years hence, but with new powers and responsibilities.

These elections may also be an important step in the formation of a renewed party and political system of the country. In Ukraine, there is gradually beginning to be created an additional collective center of attraction – local authorities and government bodies. 

How effectively these two centers will cooperate, especially at first, will depend on the future development of the state. This is the reason that so much attention is being paid to these elections by political parties and public organizations, as well as by the political and economic elites of the country.

Naturally, the most interested party in this process is the current Ukrainian government. Its main task is to build a viable management system – to replace the existing, highly centralized vertical one, without losing control over the country (especially during the period of formation of the new system).

To solve this problem, it is necessary, on the one hand, to complete the legal formalization of the constitutional changes, in the part of decentralization of power, and on the other hand, to prepare for local elections in 2017. This needs to occur without losing sight of the results achieved in the current election campaign, especially with regard to changes to the current electoral law.

In parallel, the next two years should be used to actively work with the people. Those politicians elected this year to local government bodies, who positively prove themselves in their jobs, can become the basis for the formation of new local governments within the framework of constitutional reform. Thus, the implementation of constitutional reform does not have to mean starting from a “clean slate.”

Another aspect that should be noted in the context of these elections is the fundamental changes that have occurred in the political landscape of Ukraine. After the 2010 elections, the dominant positions in nearly all regions of the country (with the possible exception of five western ones) ware captured by the Party of Regions. 

After the collapse of this party, in its place emerged a number of new political forces, which then divided the electorate of the former Party of Regions among themselves. Thus, the monopoly on power by a single party, even in the eastern and southern regions of the country, has been destroyed, with all its accompanying consequences, including for the Kremlin.

Why it will be more difficult for the Kremlin to influence Ukrainian politics

According to experts, one of the most important distinguishing features of the local elections in 2015, as well as in the whole post-Maidan period in the political life of the country, is a de-monopolization of power. The traditional one-party system, in effect since the Soviet era, is gradually giving way to a multi-party system, in parallel with which a new political spectrum of the state is starting to be formed.

If we compare the last parliamentary elections in autumn 2014 with the current local ones, it becomes obvious that Ukrainian society is increasingly demanding – not temporary political technology projects, “based” on populism, but real mass political parties with own ideology, which have the ability not only to paint a rosy picture of the future, but to demonstrate concrete steps on the way to achieving it.

This is exactly what these elections have shown: the electorate must be given clear and achievable objectives, which should enable the country to move forward on the path of reform. This society is very sensitive to political hypocrisy. For this reason, most of the political forces, both from the government side and in the opposition, have failed to reach conclusive results across the entire country.

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This means that society is beginning to take control of the political processes in the country by controlling the political parties, using for this not only rallies and demonstrations, but also elections at various levels. In addition, taking into account the process of the decentralization of power, we can confidently say that now all elections will turn into a type of tough examinations – for all political forces involved in them.        

In such circumstances, it will become more difficult for anyone to directly influence the political processes inside the country. Examples of this are found in Europe, where political parties receiving financial assistance from abroad are subjected to public ostracism.

In this regard, in order to minimize the negative impact on political processes within the country as well as from abroad, in Ukraine there is taking place an active discussion about the problems of transparency in the financing of domestic political parties.  

Thus, we can assume that the local elections in 2015 have fulfilled their function, becoming another step on the difficult path of Ukrainian statehood.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.