Local communities across the nation were indefinitely robbed of their right to elect their representatives when parliament cancelled the May 30 local elections earlier this week, citing the absence of a 2010 budget and, hence, funds for conducting the vote.
A clear majority (250) of Verkhovna Rada members supported the indefinite postponement of elections to oblast, city and village councils and for the mayorship of cities, towns and villages. The move to scuttle local democracy, however, raises questions about the vote’s constitutionality, not to mention the national legislature’s competence.
Furthermore, the measure raises the question of the status of incumbent local officials once their mandates expire in May, and whether any decisions they make after that date are legitimate.
Banker and former presidential candidate Sergiy Tigipko, whose strong showing in the recent presidential election could have helped his party in more than 59,000 local council elections, called the decision “a very bad signal for us, for Ukrainians and the whole world.” He also called the move a blow to Ukraine’s democracy.
Parliament’s vote was made on Feb. 16, just days before the local election campaign was supposed to start on Feb. 23. The Party of Regions, led by president-elect Victor Yanukovych, delegated 171 votes to support the law, while 32 deputies from Our Ukraine-People’s Self-Defense, 27 Communists and 19 Lytvyn Bloc parliamentarians supported the vote. Only one member from the Bloc of Yulia Tymoshenko, loser of the 2010 presidential runoff, backed the measure. The bloc is planning to appeal the vote in the Constitutional Court.
The Committee of Voters of Ukraine labeled the move “cynical” and “political, not legal,” in a press statement. The non-profit watchdog said that cancelling elections without specifying a future date is unconstitutional.
Experts said many political camps in parliament, notably the Our Ukraine grouping, supported the law because they fear a backlash from voters. Volodymyr Karpuk, a parliamentarian from the Our Ukraine grouping, argued, however, that that cancelling local elections has many positive and negative aspects. “On the one hand, it’s currently impossible to ensure the organizational aspect of conducting the election campaign…the 2010 budget isn’t passed yet.”
However, Karpuk failed to acknowledge that parliament was already in violation of the constitution for not having yet passed the 2010 state budget and the possibility of financing the election from the country’s reserve fund as it did in the presidential election.
On the other hand, Karpuk admitted that political motives were at play. “After the presidential election, a part of society’s electorate is too emotionally unstable to exercise their vote. Some want to take revenge.”
The fear for many parties who currently hold a strong presence in parliament and regional legislatures is that with voter fatigue running high, citizens will vote them out of office, choosing new parties and new faces.
“They don’t want to let in new political parties to local councils so they’ll hold off, form a coalition, amend the constitution and make use of government resources on local levels to keep from losing seats in local government,” said Valeriy Karpuntsov, a member of Vitaly Klitschko’s bloc in Kyiv’s city council.
According to constitutional amendments that went into effect in May 2006, three months after the last general elections, local council members are elected to four-year terms and heads of cities, towns and villages are elected to five-year terms.
Ihor Kohut, chairman of the Agency for Legislative Initiatives, a non-profit organization that monitors parliament and advises on drafting legislation, said “some constitutional amendments (relating to local governance) took effect after the March 2006 general elections, which is why May 30 was the legitimate date and in accordance with the constitution”.
“The decision [to cancel the election] was more political than anything and at a minimum it isn’t close to the constitution,” Kohut added.
Local governments are still centralized and aligned according to a “presidential vertical” whereby the president appoints 24 oblast governors and 490 district heads along with the head of the Crimea who all are subordinate to the Cabinet of Ministers. Although locally elected, most councils fall under the purview of central government.
They also are dependent on Kyiv financially, as they are limited in scope to raising tax and other revenue from their communities.
City and town council members are elected according to a closed-list proportional system in which people vote for political parties that disclose only the first five candidates on the lists.
Village councils are elected according to a single mandate constituency system with first past the post voting in which the candidate who wins a plurality of votes earns a council seat.
Kyiv Post staff writer Mark Rachkevych can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.