Ukraine finally gets a new Election Code. It’s the first step to an effective political system

First Deputy Speaker of the Verkhovna Rada (Parliament) Iryna Gerashchenko (left) and Speaker Adnriy Parubiy (right) cheer after the adoption of the new Election Code. Photo: Ukrinform.ua 

Politics

After 17 unsuccessful attempts, on 11 July the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine finally passed a new Election Code. It significantly changes the current election system. The document comes into force on 1 December 2023, meaning that both the snap parliamentary elections scheduled for 21 July 2019 and the next elections after that, which should take place in October 2023, will take place according to the old rules, if no amendments are made.

The election reform was a key element of the Ukraine-EU Association Agreement ratified in September 2014. Already in November 2014, the adoption of a new Election Code was outlined in the coalition agreements of the new post-Euromaidan Ukrainian parliament, and representatives of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, as well as the Venice Commission,  pointed out the importance of this step for Ukraine in the complex election reform which has prime significance for the strengthening of democratic institutions.

But the parliament dragged its feet on this important promise for nearly five years. The project of the new Election Code was developed in 2015 but was adopted in the first reading only in November 2017, thanks to societal pressure.

Only on the last session day of the cadence of Ukraine’s post-Euromaidan parliament was the Election Code finally adopted, partially thanks to the insistence of Rada speaker Andriy Parubiy who pushed through the vote despite the quiet sabotage of MPs, thanks to which it finally gathered 230 votes out of the necessary 226.

Open party lists, no more majoritarian system

The Election Code specifies the procedures for presidential, parliamentary, and local elections. But the major changes concern parliamentary elections. After the Election Code comes into force, Ukraine will no longer have a mixed proportional-majoritarian election system, with 50% of MPs being elected based on votes for political parties, and the other 50% – through single-mandate constituencies.

Now, the system is changed to solely a proportional one, but it has an important difference – open party lists. Previously, voters had no influence over the specific people who parties put on their lists. The new Election Code will provide voters the opportunity to not only vote for a party, but for specific politicians in the party. It is this change which is considered to be revolutionary. The party lists will now be open not only on the central but on the regional level as well. The seats in parliament will be distributed proportionally based on the election results. The more support a party gets, the more mandates it receives. The candidates who received the largest support in their region will receive seats in the session hall. These MPs will be determined by the Central Election Committee.

The threshold for political parties to get into parliament has remained at 5%.

Ukraine’s existing election system: the foundation for political corruption

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Experts believe that the changes will make Ukraine much less susceptible to political corruption, which was for many years enabled by the existing election system.

The proportional system with closed party lists allowed parties to sell places on their lists to elites with riches of questionable origins who were seeking reelection in order to obtain parliamentary immunity and avoid spending time behind bars.

The majoritarian system gave rise to a plethora of other notorious violations. These included the notorious “selling votes for buckwheat,” meaning that poor voters could be bribed to vote for the candidate giving out food parcels, as well as such superficial acts as opening up playgrounds lavishly decorated with the candidate’s name on the eve of elections.

Such are the substitutes for effective politics in Ukraine, which allow imitating a genuine political process of making decisions to solve societal problems and carrying responsibility for those decisions with MPs serving the interests of themselves, and, as it often was, the oligarchs sponsoring political parties.

Zelenskyy may veto the bill

Ruslan Stefanchuk, President Zelenskyy’s representative to the Verkhovna Rada, commented on air of 1+1 that he believes that the Rada adopted the Election Code with violations of procedures, which is why the Office of the President will study it before Zelenskyy decides to sign it or not.

Zelenkyy’s first bill in office concerned elections. It was not supported by the Rada, which did not include it to their agenda. His bill proposed a proportional system with closed party lists.

Changing the political system is a step in the right direction, but it won’t solve all the problems alone

Graphics: Ganna Naronina

As Olena Makarenko wrote earlier, Ukraine has had an extremely unstable electoral system, with each elections taking place under different rules. One incident goes to demonstrate that merely changing the election system isn’t enough to make things better. For instance, a proportional system with closed party lists was lauded in 2006 as being a progressive step, yet in fact it benefited the party leaders, opened the doors for representatives of the large businesses to be included on the party lists for money, cementing the connection between business and politics, made MPs dependent on the party leadership, and created regional disproportions. This all helped runaway ex-President Yanukovych usurp power for his Party of the Regions in 2007.

The proposed party system with open lists should help prevent these problems, but it is only one step forward on the right path.

A major problem is the irresponsibility of the Ukrainian 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,” Olena Makarenko wrote.

Oleksiy Koshel, head of the Committee of Voters of Ukraine, also stressed that good results will be seen after the second part of the electoral reform is concluded.

He pointed out that the origins of party funds remain unregulated and that Ukraine needs to curb the influence of political advertising.

“In 2014, political parties spend 70-80% of their election funds for advertising, even up to 92%. That means politicians are working ‘for the TV.’ […] If we don’t minimize the influence of political advertising, only the selected few will be able to afford elections – those that have the money for them. In result, we will see mostly representatives of big business in parliament once again,” Koshel noted.

As well, he stressed the new Code does not introduce any new mechanisms for the Ukrainian diaspora wanting to take part in elections. Due to the complicated nature of the process, only 1% of the diaspora took part in the 2019 presidential elections, which President Zelenskyy won in a landslide.

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