With elections approaching, electoral reform in Ukraine still a distant hope

elections Ukraine

Participants of the protest “No to elections by Yanukovych’s law.” Photo: vybory.pravda.com.ua 

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Article by: Olena Makarenko

Elections are approaching in Ukraine. In 2019, Ukrainians will vote for a new president and parliament. However, despite the demands of civil society and promises of the government, no changes have been made to the law on elections in the four years after the previous ones, held in the aftermath of the Euromaidan revolution. It means that the chances for fairly choosing new independent leaders are smaller than they could be. Changes to the legislation for parliamentary elections is especially urgent. The new Election Code which passed the first reading could fix some problems. To urge MPs to adopt it, activists across Ukraine organized protests titled “No to elections by Yanukovych’s law,” referring to Ukraine’s runaway president impeached after the Euromaidan revolution. The latest ones were held today, on 17 May 2018.

Protesters demanding to amend the election legislation in front of the Verkhovna Rada, 17 May 2018. Photo: hromadske.ua

What is this Yanukovych law?

The activists refer to legislation defining the parliamentary voting system. Right now, Ukrainians choose MPs according to the mixed system: 50% of 450 MPs are elected by a proportional system based on voting results of political parties, the other 50% according to the majoritarian one, with candidates representing constituencies. This system was first introduced in Ukraine at the end of the 90’s during the presidency of Leonid Kuchma, and after a period of the proportional system was reintroduced during Yanukovych’s rule in 2010. According to the election watchdog Chesno, it was thanks to the mixed system that MPs became marionettes in the hands of party leaders, Yanukovych’s Party of Regions gained a majority, and Ukraine slid into authoritarianism.

What are the drawbacks of the mixed system?

Both majoritarian and proportional components of the current system have their own drawbacks.

The majoritarian one opens the doors for using “administrative resources,” which means direct and indirect bribing of voters with the help of state funds. Most often, this bribing includes giving money or event the infamous practice of giving out packages of food products such as buckwheat to voters and the urgent renovation of infrastructure (building playgrounds, paving the streets, painting walls) just before elections (which might be left unfinished if a candidate does not win).
Another drawback of the majority component is that it allows candidates who aren’t supported by the majority of the population but gained only a slight advantage compared to other candidates, to get into Parliament.

“The main drawback of the majority component is a big waste of votes. The winner can be a person who gained a minority of votes. Sometimes a person can gain 13% and it will be more than any of competitors get. So the person becomes a deputy even if 87% are against it,” explained Denys Kovryzhenko, the Senior Legal Advisor of the International Foundation for Electoral Systems of Ukraine.

Thus, parties which win according to this component can be supported by the minority of the population, but form a majority and the government. And the proportional system with closed party lists, meaning that voters don’t know which specific people will represent their party of choice, doesn’t promote the renewal of the political elites either.

“The place of a candidate in the list is defined by negotiations between the candidate and the party leader. And it is no secret the places in lists are sold at the stage of the nomination of candidates. So if we change the existing mixed system to being fully proportional, it would more or less represent the moods within society, but there will be no renewal of the elites because parties would nominate oligarchs or people who are dependent on authorities, and the existing 5% threshold would prevent new political forces from entering the parliament,” Kovryzhenko said.

Discussions on changing the system had been taking place in Ukraine for a long time and were activated after the Euromaidan Revolution, after the dictator president Viktor Yanukovych ran away from the country in February 2014.

What legislation can fix the situation?

Voting for the Election Code came as a surprise, as the current parliament is not interested in changing the rules. Photo: espreso.tv

On November 6 Verkhovna Rada (Parliament) adopted the bill of the Election Code in the first reading. The successful vote was unexpected because the majority of MPs in the current Parliament is not interested in changing the existing rules.

226 MPs (of the needed 225) voted for the bill of the Election Code. It was initiated by Andriy Parubiy, Speaker of the Parliament, Oleksandr Chernenko, an MP from Petro Poroshenko’s Bloc, and Leonid Emets, a Narodnyi Front MP. The Code which might start the election reform had been registered already in 2015. It consists of almost 450 pages and the main change it makes is moving from the current mixed voting system during Parliamentary elections to the proportional one. The main benefit of this is believed to be reducing the chances of voters being bribed in single-mandate constituencies.

Is there a chance that the Code will pass the second reading?

First, let’s take a look how it became possible that the Code even passed the first reading.

The participants of the protests in Kyiv in Autumn 2017 wrote down the vote for the Election Code on the list of their victories. However, some MPs believe that the parliament supported the bill by mistake.

Ukrayinska Pravda, referring to its own sources of the inner circle of the Rada Speaker Parubiy, wrote that a few weeks ago he tried to persuade President Poroshenko that the proposed proportional system is very similar to the existing majoritarian one and called to support it. But the president was still against any changes.

However, the voting for the Code, according to the media, is not a sign that the president finally agreed, but just a coincidence. They suppose that the Petro Poroshenko Bloc and Narodnyi Front voted in support of the Code, expecting that it wouldn’t pass anyway and they would come out as heroes, while the Volia Narodu, Vidrodzhennia, and Opposition Bloc [the successor of the disgraced president Viktor Yanukovych Party of Regions] voted against the law:

Co-chairman of the Opposition Bloc and oligarch Vadym Novynskyi, in his turn, said that his political force voted “for any proportional system which will not allow using administrative resources in constituencies.

However, the media writes that the key three votes came from majoritarian MPs who, according to the groups they belong to, voted by mistake.

Therefore, it is extremely likely that the Code will not be adopted in the second reading. But there is one condition which might change the situation – the attention of society and Ukraine’s western partners.

The protests organized this May are called to make the Code to pass the second reading faster.

“Unfortunately the government will fulfill its promises only under huge pressure. In November, under the pressure of several thousand protesters, the Verkhovna Rada adopted the bill of the Election Code in the first reading. The MPs filed the record number of amendments to it – more than four thousand. Unfortunately, the Committee on Legal Policy and the working group created with it sabotage the election reform. Not even 10% of the amendments have been considered yet. We decided to help the government to accelerate the process,” that is how Mykola Vygovskiy, the coordinator of the Movement Chesno and the initiator of the protest, announced it.

What are the other obstacles to the fair elections in Ukraine next year?

Graphics: Ganna Naronina

The composition of the Central Election Commission is another pressing issue.

Before the early Presidential Election in 2014, the Verkhovna Rada passed several amendments to the law on the Central Election Commission (CEC). In the old version, members of the CEC were to work for a term of 7 years. With the amendments, they will stay in office until a new CEC is appointed. Back in 2014, this decision was reasonable because of the urgent need to elect a president after the upheaval of the Euromaidan revolution. However, the old body continued to work during the 2014 Early Parliamentary Elections and until now.

On January 2018, President Petro Poroshenko signed a petition to appoint new members of the CEC. He proposed his options for appointments. On February 5 this year, he submitted the members to the parliament.

Still, so far the CEC has not been renewed. As long as the old CEC is operating, the legitimacy of every election in Ukraine can be questioned.

Another problem is the responsibility of the population, which allows politicians to bribe itself and be manipulated. The people who sell their votes are usually criticized for being irresponsible and corrupt. However, this is the reality which Ukraine inherited. Lectures about voters’ responsibility are useless when people can’t feed themselves or their family. The solution is creating such conditions where a person will survive without the additional UAH 500 (less than $20). But so far, Ukrainian politicians are interested in maintaining the current state of affairs. As well, parties can avoid punishment for violating election legislation, which doesn’t help.

Last but not least, there is a lack of conditions allowing political forces independent of oligarchs to enter the political arena. The main reason is that they can’t compete with the bloated budgets of existing parties. During the last years, Ukraine made important steps towards transparency of parties’ budgets. However, it was not enough, as oligarchic money is still an important component of Ukrainian politics.

So if adopted, the proposed Code will be only the first step towards improving the political situation in the country. Also, the process of its implementation should be under strict supervision.

Also, the discussions on holding early parliamentary elections have been started almost after the last ones has been held. The parties which have little seats now but whose ratings are growing are interested in it. Nevertheless, as only about a year is left until the next elections it is very unlikely that Ukraine will be shaken by holding another early election.

According to the latest polls conducted by the center SOCIS, so far the leaders of the ratings are Batkivshchyna, the party of Yuliya Tymoshenko, Hromadyanska Pozyciya of Anatoliy Hrytsenko and the party Sluga Narodu of Volodymyr Zelenskiy. The name of the last one is translated as a servant of the people and is taken from the name of the popular comedy TV series. It tells about the ordinary teacher who occasionally became the president. The main character is played by Volodymyr Zelenskiy, the leader of the party and the main person of the comedy TV show Kvartal 95. Zelenskiy himself stated that he registered the party so others will not be able to use its name and that he has no intention to campaign.

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