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Why the Ukrainian parliament voted to change the election system against its own will

A session of the Ukrainian Parliament, or the Verkhovna Rada. Photo:
Why the Ukrainian parliament voted to change the election system against its own will
Article by: Olena Makarenko
Edited by: Alya Shandra

On November 6, the most unexpected vote since the Euromaidan revolution took place in Verkhovna Rada (Parliament).

It concerns changing the rules of the election legislation. The corresponding bill was passed in the first reading. The successful vote was unexpected because the majority of the MPs from the current Parliament is not interested in changing the existing rules. Outside the parliament, protests have been ongoing for the third week in a row. Their participants, led by ex-Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, are confident that the vote took place due to the pressure of the street: an electoral reform was one out of three initial demands of the protesters. However, some MPs are now saying that the bill passed the first reading by mistake and that it probably will not be adopted in the second reading, which is planned in two weeks – unless the pressure of society and Ukraine’s international partners will persuade the MP’s to do the opposite. Let’s take a look at what the proposed changes can bring.

226 MPs 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. But is the new system a panacea for changing the political situation in Ukraine in general?

Why there is a need to change the system

Now Ukrainians choose their Parliament by electing one-half of the 450 MPs based on the lists of political parties, and the other half in the majority constituencies. Both components of the current system have their own drawbacks:

  • The majority 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 the 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.
  • And the proportional system with closed party lists doesn’t promote the renewal of the political elites either.

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. Petro Poroshenko was elected as a new president and it became clear that there will be early parliamentary elections, which took place on 26 October 2014.

Three and a half years of attempts to turn to the proportional system

Attempts to change the system a few months before the 2014 early elections had failed. First, because many preparations were necessary, and without the proper amount of time, to carry them out, chaos would be unavoidable. Also, there was a need to educate voters and explain to them how to vote in terms of the more complicated proportional system. Second, at that time, the ruling politicians were also not interested in changes. Knowing that the changes would not be adopted anyway, they resorted to populism and made a show of demonstrating their will and efforts to implement the changes, which were a demand of civil society.

In the end, the system was not changed for the early elections of 2014.

After the new Parliament was elected and the coalition was formed, the coalition agreement signed by the Petro Poroshenko Bloc, Narodnyi Front, Batkivshchyna, Radical Party of Oleg Liashko and Samopomich envisaged changing the electoral rules. The last three left the coalition, and Petro Poroshenko Bloc and Narodniy Front are the least interested in changing the system now. The parliamentary groups Vidrodzhennia and Volia Narodu (together 46 MPs) are not interested in proportional system as well, because they consist mostly of majoritarian MPs who don’t want to be involved in big party projects.

An alternative version of why the Parliament supported changing the system

The Speaker of Parliament Andriy Parubiy. Photo:

Despite the fact that the protesters wrote down the vote for the Election Code on the list of their victories, some MPs are confident that the parliament supported the bill by mistake.

Ukrainska Pravda, referring to its own sources of the inner circle of the 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:

Then they [Petro Poroshenko’s Bloc and Narodniy Front] would be able to say ‘See, we voted and tried to implement changes, but they [other abovementioned political forces] prevented us’,” Ukrainska Pravda quotes the explanation of an MP from Narodnyi Front.

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 reaction

The voting caused a lively response in Ukraine – despite the discussions, the election issue seemed frozen for a long period.

The adoption of the Code in the first reading was already welcomed by the EU. The Delegation of the EU to Ukraine reminded that the election reform is a key element of the agenda of the Association Agreement between Ukraine and the EU and expressed expectation that the work on the Election Code will be finished by the end of 2017, because it is crucial to finalize the changes long before the next elections which planned for 2019.

The Council of Europe also released its statement with a call to conduct the reform as soon as possible.

After the first reading, the Ukrainian election watchdog Civil Network OPORA called on the Chairman of the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine and the Parliamentary Committee on Judicial Policy and Justice to guarantee the preparation of draft Election Code on the basis of openness and transparency standards, in line with the regulations, and with consideration of expert suggestions from non-governmental organizations.

“Taking into consideration that draft Election Codes have not been discussed in 2014-2015, the MPs should abstain from making any non-systemic amendments and propositions to the draft Election Code, which have already been adopted in the first reading, without prior discussion and coordination with deputy factions and groups. Many amendments, made by MPs individually to the draft Election Code, which are not discussed or supported by their factions or groups, must not become a reason for slowing down the law-making process. On the contrary, only a thorough discussion at the level of competent committee, deputy factions and groups, can guarantee a successful adoption of the draft Election Code, and is a sign of systematic amendment of electoral legislation,” says the statement.

What are the regional lists

Let’s take a look at the way how parliamentary elections will take place if the changes are adopted.

  • The majoritarian component will be canceled. But the proposed new system is still not strictly proportional.
  • According to the Election Code, Ukraine will be divided into 27 counties. They will correspond to the administrative division of oblasts, with exceptions made for Kyiv and Dnipropetrovsk Oblast, which would have 2 counties. Also, South County will include Kherson Oblast, Crimea, and Sevastopol.
  • Perhaps the most important change being made is the introduction of open lists. At its congress, a party will have to nominate a nationwide list of candidates. A part of them should be included in the regional election lists with which a party will run in every county. A regional list should include no more than 5 candidates.
  • Voters will receive a bulletin with two columns. In the first they should put the number of the party they vote for. In the second they can but don’t have to put the number of the candidate from the regional list they support. If a voter leaves the second column empty, his vote will go just for a party. Therefore, voters can influence the lineup of party candidates on the list. Previously, Ukrainians voted via closed lists, i.e. voting for a political party itself and having no influence on who actually gets into parliament.
  • Currently, only parties who are supported by at least 5% of the population receive a mandate in parliament. This threshold was reduced to 4%.

The drawbacks

In 2007, the pro-Russian Party of Regions of ex-President Viktor Yanukovych (pictured) came to power. Photo:

Ukraine is a country with an unstable electoral legislation. During its 26 years of independence, almost every election had taken place under new rules. A proportional system but with closed lists was already introduced in Ukraine during the parliamentary elections in 2006 and early parliamentary elections in 2007.

Then, the usage of the proportional system was described as a step full of benefits, which should have:

  • Helped opposition parties, which previously were prevented from entering parliament by the numerous pseudo-independent self-nominated and pro-governmental candidates in majoritarian counties;
  • Eliminated corruption at single-mandate constituencies;
  • Created conditions for the emergence of ideological parties;
  • Changed elections from the competition of personalities that they were into a competition of political programs.

In 2007, then President Viktor Yushchenko dissolved the Parliament elected according to the proportional system in 2006. It led to early elections which also took place according to the proportional system. In fact these elections showed the following results:

  • It benefited the party leaders, but did not solve the questions it was called to solve;
  • A lot of representatives of the large businesses were included on the party lists (on a commercial basis), cementing the connection between business and politics;
  • MPs were totally dependent from the party leadership – the candidates to party lists initially were selected by the criteria of loyalty to the leaders;
  • Representation of different regions was hugely disproportionate.

In 2007, Yanukovych’s Party of Regions gained the majority of votes. Later it helped Yanukovych to usurp power.

This experience shows that the election system alone can’t change the situation.

Other aspects of Ukrainian elections

Graphics: Ganna Naronina

Apart from the election system, another crucial question on the agenda is the Central Election Commission. Its members continue working, despite the expiration of their terms.

Before the early Presidential Election in 2014, the Verkhovna Rada passed several amendments to the law on the Central Election Commission. In the old version, members of the CEC were to work a term of 7 years. The amended envisions provides that they 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 and provided legal security in case the election results would be doubted. However, the old body continued to work during the Early Parliamentary Elections 2014 and until now.

News on possible changes in the composition of the CEC appear often, however so far there is no consensus between the president and political parties.

As long as the old CEC is operating, the legitimacy of every election in Ukraine can be questioned. The EU also emphasized this problem in its statement.

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.

Read also:  Electing bad leaders in Ukraine: how to break the vicious cycle #UAreforms



Edited by: Alya Shandra
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