Kharkiv mayor Hennadiy Kernes has a good chance at winning these local elections, despite his criminal past and corruption scandals. Photo: facebook.com/pg/gennadykernes/
Local politicians in Ukraine are immersed in corruption scandals and controversial activities. Yet, Ukrainians spare them the cantankerous criticism doled out to national elites, and vote for the same old faces, sometimes for decades in a row. The local elections coming up on 25 October are no exception – and memories of feudalism are to blame.
Ukraine has entered the runup to the local elections set for 25 October 2020, and campaigns are in full swing. Despite relatively high support on the national scale — close to 29% — President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s ruling Servant of the People party has not fared well at the local level, according to surveys. One of the problems is the party’s failure to recruit locally known and influential candidates who have a competitive chance to win municipal and regional communities.
Contributing to the party’s malaise is that Ukrainians tend to vote conservatively in local elections, choosing the same leaders year after year. In some cases, politicians have held on as long as 20 years, despite corruption scandals — even those relating to the mayors of Ukraine’s biggest cities, such as Odesa and Kharkiv. The sociological group Rating — one of the leading Ukrainian polling organizations — has found that the majority of local citizens still support these compromised leaders.
A persistent belief is that only “tough managers” who have political connections — regardless of scandals — can provide local services in a city. As Ukrainian political philosopher Mykhailo Minakov explains, local people on the whole simply lack confidence in what they consider to be obscure democratic principles and untrustworthy institutions.
The strange logic of Ukrainian national and local elections
Generally, Ukrainian national and local elections are characterized by completely opposite trends.
In national elections, Ukrainians prefer “new faces.” The political belief is that “new faces” will be better than their predecessors; that once a new, “true leader” takes office, the entire situation in the country will change within a few months.
Consequently, national leaders typically lose the majority of supporters during their first year in office, since they cannot meet the expectation of instant change. The people tire of them quickly.
None of the Ukrainian presidents and ruling parties have been re-elected to serve two terms. Nor do they remain a major political force very long (an exception occurred in 1999 when the main rival of incumbent President Leonid Kuchma died under vague circumstances, ensuring Kuchma a second term).
Moreover, most political parties need to rebrand and reinvent themselves every five-to-ten years due to their loss of support.
A completely opposite pattern takes place on the local level. Mayors of Lviv and Kharkiv — two of Ukraine’s five largest cities — have governed since 2006.
In Lviv, Andriy Sadovyi has been elected mayor three times successively. In Kharkiv, Hennadiy Kernes has been elected two times since 2010. In addition to that, he held de-facto power as early as 2006 in the role of elections team manager and donor, contributing funds to then-Mayor Mykhailo Dobkin.
Both Sadovyi and Kernes have maintained a high level of public support in their respective municipalities — despite accusations of corruption — and are most likely to be re-elected.
Regarding Kernes, the situation is even more striking. Widely known as a key figure of organized crime during the mid-eighties, he actually spent three years in prison. Many of his crimes were well known publicly during his first few terms. Yet, voters at the time — and to this day — still support him.
In the other three largest cities of Ukraine (Kyiv, Odesa, and Dnipro), the current mayors were first elected in 2014 and are most likely to be re-elected in 2020, having approval ratings of 50% and higher.
The case of Odesa Mayor Hennadiy Trukhanov is particularly telling. He has been involved in money laundering and corruption for several years. Most importantly, he managed to obtain total control over local elites. No less than 60 out of 65 local council representatives regularly support his decisions.
Local business elites are also controlled by Trukhanov, their profits largely depending on his political sway. Meanwhile, dozens of Odesa anti-corruption activists have faced violent attacks protesting the disreputable status quo. At least one of them, Serhiy Sternenko, has faced murder charges for self-defense during an attack.
Despite his widely known malfeasance, local citizens still support Trukhanov. He is far ahead of other mayoral candidates, according to the latest polls.
Similar scenarios are replicated in many other cities and towns, where politicians supported by local elites can maintain an office for two decades.
Echoes of feudal communities and post-Soviet experience
At the local level, an inherent belief is that political confidence is best invested in those who can make things happen — the ends justify the means
On the other hand, democratic leaders acting ethically will not be able to manage the domestic economy and services properly.
At the local level, an inherent belief is that political confidence is best invested in those who can make things happen — the ends justify the means. Mykhailo Minakov, a Ukrainian political philosopher, made these remarks in his interview with Liga.net:
“I first encountered this fact a long time ago, when I was trying to understand why, for example, Kharkiv residents vote for Kernes. All connections and a criminal trail are well-known. And still, the intelligent people, the scientists whom I talked to, they voted for him.
When I asked directly, the answer was this: ‘We do not expect righteousness from the mayor, we expect services.’ It seems to people that a candidate who has gone the other way – not the business-semi-criminal one – will not be able to give them these services. This is probably a post-Soviet experience of Ukrainians. There is a belief that if a person is not a ‘tough manager,’ the situation will get yet worse.”
The other overriding factor is that local mayors control many local businesses as well as the budgets of municipalities. Subsequently, they can conduct transactions of mutual benefit between themselves and influential city leaders. This relationship has the added feature of securing mayoral victory in elections:
“If one looks at the redistribution of funds, the mayors (especially if they control the councils) can allocate enough funds to meet the needs of the key segments of the local population and establish a patronage relationship with them. When the mayor acts as a patron, and people are waiting to be taken care of. As a result, the mayor buys voter loyalty through budget expenditures. We can see the same in [ancient] republican Rome and Athens. This is an old shortcoming of democracy.”
“In my town, the political situation is good, it’s more or less normal in the region, but totally wrong on the national level,” think Ukrainians in all parts of Ukraine
Ukrainian political scientists, including Minakov, agree that in Ukraine local identity often prevails over national political identity. This is partially the consequence of centuries of fractured feudal communities imposed by foreign rulers and is a huge obstacle for contemporary state-building. The sociological data describes how this tendency is clearly perpetuated in peoples’ assessment of local and national politics.
Historically, Ukrainians have viewed developments on the national level more negatively than positively. The sole exception was in the wake of Zelenskyy’s groundswell election in 2019 when a majority of citizens considered political developments in the country as positive rather than negative.
Now, a year later, the old trend has returned to its usual form.
Altogether, the trends that persist from election to election on the local level have ambiguous consequences.
On the one hand, they impede the development of fully transparent and democratic governments in cities. But on the other hand, strong local leaders are temporarily necessary to prevent an excessive concentration of power in the hands of the national government, at least until rule of law firmly establishes itself both institutionally and culturally.
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