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In Ukraine, local elections legitimise a new political system - and the old faces behind it

Ukraine’s local elections have frayed the connection between national and local elites - and legitimised the clan networks that run the country’s regions.

Kateryna Semchuk
13 November 2020
(c) Celestino Arce/NurPhoto/PA Images. All rights reserved

On 25 October, Ukraine held local elections across the country, heralding the final stage of a much-lauded decentralisation of administrative power - and a serious loss for president Zelenskyi’s Servant of the People party.

While 11 cities are scheduled to hold a second round in their mayoral elections later this month, it is already clear from the results of the first round who the winners are in this contest: old local political elites who have been monopolising power in Ukraine’s regions since the 1990s. With these local political machines freshly legitimised, Ukraine is entering a new era - one with a new dual-leveled political system and questions over the future of the old “power vertical”.

This situation has been prompted by decentralisation reform, which over the past five years has devolved power and resources to new, amalgamated regional units. But the results beg the question: how come a reform that was supposed to strengthen democracy at the local level instead cemented power in the hands of local political groups?

This dynamic has been particularly clear in Zakarpattya, in the west of the country - where several local veteran political elites closely tied with business have won out at the local elections.

Emancipation of local politics

The 2020 local election campaign was intense, diverse and highly competitive, as reported by the OPORA civic network - unlike the parliamentary or presidential elections, the results of which are easier to predict.

This year the election process changed due to Ukraine’s administrative reform, which began in 2015 - and for many old political players, this was a challenge of adaptation. With a new territorial division, new powers and resources for local governments, the stakes in local elections increased significantly.

Major changes include a four-time decrease in the number of local councils, the introduction of a proportional system in communities with more than 10,000 voters, and a 40% gender quota on candidate lists. The gender quota caused quite a stir among Ukraine’s political parties, which had to feverishly look for women candidates, recruiting influential and recognisable women, as well as relatives and coworkers.

To adjust to this new reality, old politicians regrouped into new local parties during the summer, quitting well-known national party brands. The Servant of the People party, which holds an absolute majority in Ukraine’s parliament, has not managed to integrate local politicians. This was the first sign that local politicians were “emancipating” themselves from Kyiv rule.

“After the local elections of 2020, twenty-five regional political regimes have emerged in Ukraine”

According to Ukraine’s political traditions, all local political forces were compelled to join the president’s party one way or another - this connection provided them with security, primarily for their family business, and allowed them to stay in power for decades, expand their businesses and establish clans.

“The system on the local level in Ukraine is family-clan based, in some places it has a criminal origin, elsewhere it doesn’t,” explains Oleksandr Fisun, a Ukrainian political scientist. “These are political families, and often literally clans who are united not only by a joint business, but also family ties. Zakarpattya is an illustrative example, although the situation is similar in other regions.”

After 2014, there came a radical weakening of the centre - and power shifted to the regional level in Ukraine, Fisun says. “Now local elites have become so autonomous that, in principle, they do not need to join the president’s party and have taken power on the ground. That is the main transformation associated with this election.”

Thus, for example, in Zakarpattya - a region of great value due to its borders with Romania, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia - several MPs and a member of one of the Zakarpattya clans reformatted an old party (“Kyiv Community”) into “Ridne Zakarpattya”, or Native Zakarpattya. Vasyl Petyovka, the clan member in question, had previously been a longtime member of the United Center party, run by his cousin Viktor Baloha, founder of the leading Zakarpattya clan .

“These four MPs created a local project to be independent from Kyiv. They did not run for elections, but acted as ‘faces of the brand’,” says Vitaliy Hlahola, a journalist and public activist who is now a deputy of the Uzhhorod city council - he headed the Native Zakarpattya list in the regional capital.

At the local level, the political system is also patrimonial. In turn, Viktor Baloha, who passed on to national level politics, bequeathed the Mukacheve district to his eldest son Andriy Baloha, who rebranded his father’s old party United Center, naming it Andriy Baloha's Team ahead of the election.

How decentralisation has changed local politics in Ukraine

Despite the importance of these local elections, turnout was very low - 36.88%. The winners, very often by a wide margin, have been old politicians, long-serving town mayors and their political projects - in short, those who ruled Ukraine’s regions for many years.

Thus, Andriy Baloha won in Mukachevo, and Zoltan Babyak, representative of the Hungarian minority, won in Beregovo. Meanwhile, Vasyl Petyovka’s Native Zakarpattya party has done very well all over the region; his son Andriy Petyovka has been elected to Mukachevе сity council from the Native Zakarpattya list. Only Uzhhorod will hold a second round of elections, where incumbent mayor Bohdan Andriyiv will face Viktor Shchadei, a young local politician from the Servant of the People party.

The results for the Servant of the People party in general is about the same as that of the Petro Poroshenko Bloc party in the 2015 local elections, when the latter lost control of the mayors seats in large cities, and failed to take a majority of votes in regional centres or city councils. Power at the local level in Zakarpattya is now completely - and legitimately - concentrated in the hands of political clans which are independent from Kyiv.

“After the local elections of 2020, twenty-five regional political regimes have emerged in Ukraine,” says Oleksandr Fisun, citing the number of administrative regions in the country. “Each one consists of two parts: the city regime, the nature of which depends on the success of the mayor, and the regional council.”

This brings significant changes to the political scene in Ukraine. “Ukraine has developed a two-tier political system. The first level is national, with national political parties, and the second level is local with regional politicians,” Fisun states. “Now we have two levels which do not depend on each other, and this leads to serious changes in the entire political system and the entire political regime. These changes appeared in the 2015 local elections, but were strengthened and, in fact, institutionalised after the decentralisation reform.”

Indeed, these elections and the administrative reform have consolidated the autonomy of local elites from Ukraine’s central government, making local politics independent from national politics. This also means that “small fish” on the local level, like deputies of district councils and rural townships, are no longer tied to Kyiv. If before, the head of an amalgamated territorial community - when one district council is merged with another - was happy and even obliged to join the president’s political party, because it gave them many opportunities, including use of land and state resources, now they no longer have to do so.

How should we explain the brilliant victory of politicians of local regimes and a major loss of the Servants of the People? In addition to the fact that the Servant of the People was unable to acquire the support of prominent people in the regions, it seems supporters of the presidential party simply decided not to go to the polls. Instead, it was people who were interested in ensuring economic stability in their town or region that actively voted. “The agenda of prosperity and economic security is monopolised by local party projects,” notes Fisun.

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According to a public opinion poll on corruption conducted by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology in 2018, 45.7% of respondents believed that regional authorities are corrupt, as opposed to 73.2% who attribute responsibility to the Verkhovna Rada, suggesting that local authorities enjoy more trust than their national counterparts.

“Everyone understands that local clans are stealing, that they have built the local economy for themselves. Still public funds are not only stolen, but also invested,” explains Fisun. “Many studies, like research by Lant Pritchett and Eric Werker, show that it is local corruption in, for example, the construction of urban infrastructure leads to economic growth. The money, including stolen money, is reinvested in the local economy and stimulates economic growth. Besides those who vote for local elites, and this is the majority, do not want to change this system precisely because change can worsen their situation.”

Machine politics

As a new political situation is being formed in Ukraine, local political machines are working for themselves, and it will be interesting to see how the dialogue between the independent regions and the central government develops further.

In a situation when president Volodymyr Zelenskyi has fewer means of influencing local political elites, he will be forced to take new political maneuvers in order to come to agreements with regional powers. “I think the President’s Office will most likely choose a model of coexistence and soft coalition with regions,” says Fisun. “The winners in the regional councils, city councils, etc. will see who is best to create alliances with: either the Servant of the People or perhaps with their opponents. In most cities, it may be a bloc between Servant of the People and the mayors' political projects. Approximately the same configuration at the regional level.”

Ukraine’s decentralisation reform was meant to renew the political situation in the country’s region, reduce the significance of national government and shift political responsibility to locally elected officials. But it has ended up consolidating the monopoly of power of local political machines. In the years to come, Ukraine may become a country with a weak centre and stronger regions. Although in theory, local clans cannot seize power completely (Ukraine still has an administrative vertical and the president has mechanisms of political influence at his disposal), but in case of a weak law enforcement and judiciary system, the Ukrainian state might not have any leverage over mayors or regional councils.

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