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'New Faces' For Ukraine: Local Elections Mark A Big Step Toward Decentralization Of Power

"It will take two to three election cycles...for people to see that Kyiv doesn't solve all their problems [like before]," one analyst says, "and that they must take ownership of their own communities themselves."
"It will take two to three election cycles...for people to see that Kyiv doesn't solve all their problems [like before]," one analyst says, "and that they must take ownership of their own communities themselves."

KYIV – In Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy's hometown of Kryviy Rih, 440 kilometers south of Kyiv, things are about to change -- as they are across the country.

According to forecasts, the president's Servant of the People party -- which is known more for its vague populism than for a distinct platform or ideology -- can expect less than 30 percent support in local council elections set for October 25.

That's down from the 64 percent the party polled in the city in snap parliamentary elections held in July 2019.

Normally, local elections in Ukraine are pretty insignificant, as the country inherited a top-down governing system from the Soviet Union that has largely remained in place over the last three decades.

But this year the vote will be much more important because it is being held under a new Electoral Code that both decentralizes power by resetting relations between local governments and Kyiv and mandates that women occupy no less than 40 percent of local council seats.

Under the reforms, local elections are held primarily according to the party-list system with 5 percent thresholds for representation on local councils. Settlements with fewer than 10,000 people will still use single-mandate districts.

In short, a new political landscape will emerge in Ukraine following the elections.

"Ukraine's administrative map is changing, reflecting more than 1,400 newly merged communities that have formed [since 2014] which will have more resources, decision-making [authority], and power delegated from Kyiv to solve local community problems," Oksana Harnets, project manager for the Swiss-funded Decentralization Support Project (DESPRO) in Kyiv, told RFE/RL in a phone interview.

She was referencing a decentralizing reform process that Kyiv's Western donors have pushed to delegate more authority to local governments rather than continuing to force them to grovel for financing by climbing the often graft-ridden ladder of district, regional, and central governments to meet local needs.

"The idea is [that] these merged communities can meet the needs of residents [themselves]," Garnets said, adding that issues like water supplies, waste management, roadworks, street lighting, and schools often don't seem important viewed from Kyiv but they can be the most important issues locally.

"A kindergarten won't be the president's problem," said Maria Zolkina, a political analyst at the Kyiv-based think tank Democratic Initiatives. "And local officials will perform better because they want to get reelected in their local communities."

Introducing New Competition

The reforms are expected to produce increased competition immediately. The five major parties that won a total of 78 percent of the seats in parliament during last year's elections are expected to win about 50 to 60 percent in the October 25 voting, according to polls conducted by the Rating Group polling agency.

Incumbent mayors in the biggest cities that Ukraine controls – Kyiv, Kharkiv, Odesa, Dnipro, and Lviv – are slated to retain their seats, Zolkina added.

However, she sees Zelenskiy's influence waning in the newly formed communities where local elites will have more sway. In this sense, "these elections reflect the parliamentary elections," she said.

"Servant of the People candidates [at the local level] somehow should create distance between themselves and [Zelenskiy] -- his face isn't good for local elections," Zolkina said.

She predicts that the pro-Kremlin Opposition Party-For Life party will scoop up many local council seats "mostly in the east and south."

Over time, the reforms could see the emergence of new political players. Of the roughly 350 parties registered in Ukraine, about half are only working on the local level, often organized by local business and political elites, said Viktor Zamyatin, director of political and legal programs at the Kyiv-based Razumkov Center.

During a webinar from Brussels on October 22, Zamyatin said that with no clear majorities emerging in local councils, it will force coalition building and "that kind of rivalry could be healthy -- having different representatives of business elites and influential people" all in one room.

He also foresees friction between local governments and Kyiv under the new power dynamic. It will be "interesting to see how they will cooperate despite their different motives and views," he said.

The new competition could be healthy for Ukraine’s developing democracy, said Olena Carbou, executive director and co-founder of the Ukrainian Think Tanks Liaison Office in Brussels, told the same webinar.

It will "bring new faces" to the forefront, especially more women, she noted.

A majority of Ukrainians believe the reforms will not improve life at the local level, according to a Rating Group poll released earlier this month. About one-third of respondents said they expected improvement, while the rest did not know of the changes.

"It will take two to three election cycles...for people to see that Kyiv doesn't solve all their problems [like before]," Zolkina said, "and that they must take ownership of their own communities themselves."

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    Mark Raczkiewycz

    Mark Raczkiewycz is a Ukraine-based journalist. A former RFE/RL news editor in Washington, he is the Kyiv correspondent for the New Jersey-based Ukrainian Weekly newspaper. He also contributes to the English-language Kyiv Post and has reported for Bloomberg, the Financial Times, the Associated Press, the Irish Times, The New York Times, and other publications. 

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