Why Ukraine Urgently Needs Electoral Reform

May 23, 2018
The change of the electoral system is possibly the only way to fight political corruption. Experts call for the adoption of the Electoral Code to fix legislation.

In Spring 2018 Ukraine’s Parliament is supposed to examine its new Election Code in the second reading.

During the first reading, on November 7, 2017, Verkhovna Rada passed the draft Election Code with the minimum of required votes. And it surely is a victory but previously the Code had 10 years of delay and now over 4.000 amendments are waiting for the review.

Why the Code, not the Law?

There is an old “habit” in Ukraine to adopt new election laws accurately before the elections themselves. This gave great opportunities for the manipulations and the changes of the electoral system. The current election law was passed in 2011, as there was no time to adopt a new one before the elections in 2014. Codification in itself is a way to stabilize legislation, make it less vulnerable to the changing moods and goals of the politicians.

“The adoption of the good law or Code will have a great impact on the system, but it is not the remedy for Ukrainian political corruption,” Oleksandr Chernenko, a Ukrainian MP, Chairman of the Subcommittee on Elections and Referendums, tells UkraineWorld. “The Code is the tool to implement what must be achieved by the evolution of the political culture itself.”

Why now?

Acknowledging the risks of adopting new law prior to the elections, a group of Ukrainian experts has been designing the Code for about 10 years. Yet, the current draft Election Code (initiators: Andrii Parubii, Leonid Yemets (People’s Front party), Oleksandr Chernenko (Petro Poroshenko Bloc) was submitted to the Verkhovna Rada only in October 2015. Prior to that experts registered 7 election laws to test the system and the procedures before putting them in the core of the Code.

The Code passed the first reading in Verkhovna Rada, which became a great surprise for the MPs and the experts. “The draft Code was passed thanks to the political parties that initially were not going to vote for it, as it would leave no space for radical changes,” explains Yevhen Radchenko, chief expert of electoral law group at “The Reanimation Package of Reforms”, a Ukrainian civic reform advocacy coalition. “So the first reading might have been a pure luck. MPs’ surprise also explains a great number of amendments the Code received.” To get to the second reading the parliamentary committee will have to review over 4.000 of amendments.

What will be the electoral system according to the new Code?

According to the draft Code, Ukrainian MPs will be elected on a proportional system in accordance with the open electoral lists (see about their importance below) of political parties and the introduction of regional electoral districts. Those will be 27 districts, one per oblast, only Dnipro and Kyiv oblasts will have two districts each, and annexed Crimea will be united with the Kherson Oblast. Another change is that there also will be no political blocks anymore, as in the past. Existence of these blocks of parties was never legitimized before but was a reality allowing manipulations with the financing of the parties and coalition building. Also, the passing barrier will be lowered from 5% to 4%.

Currently, parliament elections in Ukraine are held on a mixed system: 50% are elected from national closed party lists among the parties who passed 5% barrier. The remaining half is elected based on the majority constituencies.

The changes will help to make elections more suitable for Ukrainian reality, Radchenko explains: “Currently candidates can either be elected by voters in the small electoral districts or pay the party leader to get a higher place in the party list. The Code will introduce bigger districts and open lists to fight these manipulations.”

What Code will actually change for the voter?

During the parliament elections, the voting bulletin will consist of one nationwide list of candidates. The voter will see the names of those who represent their specific district in Rada. Citizens can therefore vote not just for the party, but for the particular candidate (this is what makes party lists open for voters: they will not be voting just for parties, ignoring what personalities are on the parties’ lists). Thus the life of the Central Election Commission will get harder: it will have first to count the result of the party and then of each individual candidate. This means there will be no more opportunities to hunt for the higher place in the party list, because not the party but the voter will decide, who actually passes. This will exclude previously guaranteed chairs for the top of the list.

Yet, it should be acknowledged, that electoral reform is as sensitive as slow, it will take two electoral cycles to get the results.

Will we have a Code adopted before the parliamentary elections in 2019?

The short answer is – ‘nobody knows’. If the Code is not adopted, and the laws do not change, the 2019 parliament elections will be held according to the 2012 law. Yevhen Radchenko explains: “Practically and theoretically, the Code can be adopted before the elections 2019, the only thing that is needed is the political will. But considering the minimum of votes received in the parliament during the first reading, it doesn’t look like MPs have an intention to pass it further.”

“A lot of amendments have a political background and their goal is not to make the Code better. Some MPs managed even to make amendments that change the political system itself, or are illogical in their basis,” explains MP Oleksandr Chernenko.

Finally, there is another threat to the Code: for the second reading, it might come unrecognisably changed. This all will have a great impact on the reform of electoral legislation and on the political situation in Ukraine after the elections of 2019.

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Anna Kyslytska
An analyst at Internews Ukraine and at UkraineWorld, an information and networking initiative.

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