On October 25, Ukrainians across the country will go to the polls to elect mayors as well as regional and city councils. There are more than 10,000 mayors and 160,000 city councilmember seats up for re-election. These local elections are critical to Ukraine’s further democratic development as the newly-elected officials will be empowered with increased authority if Parliament adopts the proposed decentralization package of laws and amendments that is central to President Poroshenko’s local government reform efforts. The devolution of powers to the local level partly explains the high level of voter interest in the elections. As revealed in the IRI most recent poll released on October 14, 36 percent of respondents nationwide said they were likely to vote and 39 percent said somewhat likely.
The last time Ukraine held local elections was in October 2010 under the presidency of Viktor Yanukovych. Those elections confirmed democratic backsliding in Ukraine, and were widely recognized as not having met international standards. Five years later, the upcoming local elections involve many new challenges including the occupation of parts of the eastern region of Donbas and Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea. As a result, Ukraine is not able to administer elections in these occupied territories. In addition, because of the ongoing war in the Donbas region and the annexation of Crimea, according to the United Nations, there are more than 1.3 million registered internally displaced persons (IDP) in Ukraine. The government was not able to provide sufficient opportunities for IDPs to register for these elections.
In addition to security and logistical challenges unprecedented in Ukraine’s history, more traditional challenges to ensuring free and fair elections persist. Since the EuroMaidan revolution and the flight of President Yanukovych in February 2014, Ukraine has conducted presidential and parliamentary elections, which were widely recognized (including by IRI) as having met international standards. However, this positive trend was acutely disrupted on July 26, 2015, when Ukraine held by-elections in Chernihiv. The election was determined by most observers to have been deeply flawed with widespread reports of vote buying, and other violations of election law.
Elections at a Glance
The local elections have more than 200,000 candidates registered from more than 150 political parties. To gauge national support for Ukraine’s parties, respondents in IRI’s most recent poll were asked who they would vote for in hypothetical parliamentary elections. The poll found that several parties in the parliamentary pro-European coalition performed well. President Poroshenko’s Solidarnist party, for example, was first with 13 percent. Solidarnist emerged from a merger of Bloc Petro Poroshenko and Kyiv Mayor Vitaliy Klitschko’s party (UDAR). According to IRI’s polling data, Solidarnist has nation-wide reach, with eight percent support in eastern and southern regions of Ukraine, second only to Opposition Bloc, which is polling at 17 and 14 percent, respectively.
Lviv Mayor Andriy Sadoviy’s party and pro-European coalition member, Samopomich, received 11 percent support, despite disagreements with coalition members on decentralization legislation. Samopomich ratings were highest in western Ukraine with 17 percent. Yulia Tymoshenko’s party Batkivshchyna is experiencing a significant resurgence in popularity since the October parliamentary elections, also receiving 11 percent, mostly in central Ukraine.
The Opposition Bloc (comprised mostly of former Party of Regions members) received 11 percent nationwide and leads in eastern and southern Ukraine. More than a third of voters are undecided in eastern Ukraine, indicating an opening for other parties to reach out to voters.
IRI in Ukraine
IRI has a long history of conducting election-related programming. Over the years, IRI has conducted numerous international observation missions and public opinion surveys, trainings on effective campaigning and messaging and trainings for election lawyers and poll-watchers. For these elections, IRI anticipates conducting trainings on campaign headquarters for more than 2,000 participants and training more than 3,000 party poll watchers in the weeks leading up to the elections.
Following the elections, IRI will continue its extensive governance programming at the municipal level, training local elected officials on their roles and responsibilities across the country. These trainings are increasingly critical with the potential passage of decentralization legislation devolving significant powers to these newly elected officials. In addition, in the last few years, IRI expanded its program to include strengthening linkages between local elected officials from different parts of the country. IRI has conducted numerous domestic and international exchanges with partner cities including Mariupol, Lviv, Ternopil, Mykolaiv and others to create networks across Ukraine of reform-oriented local leaders.
In order to assist these newly-elected officials in increasing their accountability to citizens, in early 2016 IRI plans to conduct its second annual nationwide municipal public opinion survey in all regions of Ukraine, with the exception of regions currently occupied. This winter, IRI anticipates conducting its second in a series of high level democratic governance conferences in Kyiv, facilitating a discussion of the polling data with key stakeholders especially timely due to expected decentralization reforms, and its second annual Mayors’ Roundtable, bringing together mayors and their staff to learn best practices from their counterparts in other parts of the country.
In addition, to measure citizen expectations of decentralization reforms and newly-elected officials, IRI plans to conduct extensive sociological research, highlighting the interests of specific groups (such as youth) utilizing public opinion surveys and focus groups.