Rumors of possible pre-term local elections were winging their way around Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s inner circle even before the snap Verkhovna Rada election took place. The president’s then VR representative Ruslan Stefanchuk announced that the Administration was considering this option. On Election Day, July 21, this idea was confirmed in passing by the president himself, when he advised voters not to take it too easy. Just two days later Dmytro Razumkov, then leader of the party, announced that local elections would take place as scheduled, in 2020, after all, but the country had taken the bait.
The press began a lively debate of the issue, complete with enigmatic, half-empty comments by pro-government politicians and skeptical opposition members. The former kept emphasizing that the issue had not been settled and that internal discussions were ongoing. Their opposite numbers kept pointing out that there was no legal basis for such a move and that anyway decentralization had to be brought to a conclusion first. Finally, Chief-of-Staff Andriy Bohdan announced during a talk show that local elections would be taking place “very soon.” This was suddenly confirmed by an unexpected dissolution of the Central Electoral Commission. The rumors that accompanied this process and came directly from the presidential party included the argument that it was necessary to prepare for a reboot of local governments, which was planned for April 2020.
Against this background, the rapid emergence of plans to divide power in the nation’s capital, initiated by Bohdan and MP Oleksandr Tkachenko, only fed the fire that much more. Information began to appear in the press citing unknown sources at the Office of the President, that elections were likely to be scheduled for December, but only in the four biggest cities: Kyiv, Dnipro, Kharkiv and Odesa – Donetsk having lost a big chunk of its population since 2014 and being under proxy Russian occupation. The submission of a bill to this effect in the legislature partly confirmed this. But the bill was eventually replaced by another one, this time without a specified date, and the topic remained under discussion. Nor has it been removed from the agenda to date.
Testing, testing, one, two, three...
From the side, SN MPs seem to be operating chaotically and illogically. In fact, they are testing the waters in this fashion. Opinion polls are as regular as morning coffee at SN headquarters and the public mood is more important than the weather. A given idea is raised up the flagpole as a provocation, no matter who does it or how, and then they watch who salutes. They are especially interested in the opinions of their opponents – those 25-30% of Ukrainians who are not prepared to eat what’s cooked up in the Kvartal 95 kitchen. It is here that any future unpleasantness is likely to come from, and SN folks know it.
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The story with the parade on Independence Day was an excellent lesson for them. Then, the Ze! team, based only their own view of the situation, figured they could throw the ball wherever they felt like. So, a parade was unnecessary, a waste of money. But the minute some Ukrainians went up in arms over this kind of “economizing” and began to plan their own march, Zelenskiy’s team went into reverse. The parade went on after all, albeit in a quasi form and, more importantly, the “opposition” parade was allowed to go ahead without interference.
The situation appears to be repeating itself with the law on land. The minute the idea of foreigners being allowed to be the ultimate beneficiaries in the purchase of farmland raised a squall, the Ze! team took another step back. Now they say they will postpone the controversial option for five years. In fact, there are quite a few such stories: the new lustration, elections in occupied Donbas, the withdrawal of troops, and, of course, local elections. All these throwaway moves are testing the waters so as not to make a mistake.
The challenges of a reboot
The intention to gain the full range of power by taking advantage of popular affection before ratings start sliding completely suits the plans of the winners of both the presidential and legislative races. Nor are there any evident obstacles to accomplishing what they want – even if some of it doesn’t quite adhere to the letter of the law. So what’s the hold-up? SN really needs a reboot at the local level and ASAP, for that matter. The more this is delayed, the more risks of not being able to keep up the hype of their 73% win – or of losing altogether.
But there are other risks and difficulties that the Ze! team is also very aware of and that’s what’s holding them back for now. First of all, the law is not on their side. According to the Constitution and the Laws “On local elections” and “On local self-government,” local elections should take place at the end of October 2020. And a snap election can only be called in the case where the local council of a specific locale is dissolved by decision of the Rada. The grounds for doing so are ample, but they cannot be pulled out of thin air. Moreover, a separate decision would have to be made about every single local council: first to dissolve it and then to set the date for an election. And Ukraine has more than 9,000 local communities, so such a procedure would take up an enormous amount of the Rada’s time. Moreover, holding snap local elections does not change the fact that the regular ones still have to be held, and that means double the expenditures. Of course, the issue could be regulated in a revolutionary fashion: changing the provisions of the Constitution and the relevant laws. But that also takes time.
Secondly, a decentralization process is underway in Ukraine. Because it involves changing the structure of administrative territories, it makes little sense to hold elections before this process is completed, and Zelenskiy’s people understand this. Running elections in united and not-yet-united communities at the same time is not an option, as it will only lead to chaos and will conserve the current transitional practice of having different models of communities functioning simultaneously, with different kinds of funding and different kinds of relationships. What’s more, the new model of administration requires that other entities, such as the State Voter Registry, also adapt themselves. It’s a complex process and the new semi-professional CEC is quite unlikely to manage its end of things quickly. For instance, the SVR currently works on the basis of County State Administrations and the executive councils of towns that are subordinated to their oblasts. If this structure is changing, and administrations are either eliminated or merged, it means that the SVR also needs to be reformatted so that the changes go through without disruption, such as losing or forgetting data. This alone is a daunting task.
Thirdly, there’s the question of which law to hold elections under Perhaps the current one will do. But there’s also some sense in revising legislation and that means making the necessary amendments in the Electoral Code that Zelenskiy vetoed. By the end of this year, the VR CEC selection committee should have prepared a list of candidates for the new commission and submitted it to the Rada for review. Supposedly, orders are out for the Rada to vote on this before the New Year’s break, but it’s hard to believe things will go so smoothly.
And then there’s the fourth challenge: the ghost of an election in occupied Donbas. Today, the Office of the President is looking at a number of possible scenarios for holding it. The first option is only in ORDiLO in spring or summer 2020. But this means amending the Constitution and the probability that it will raise a very negative reaction among Ukrainians. The second option is simultaneously with the next scheduled local elections across Ukraine in late October 2020. But that means waiting a year while Zelenskiy is itching to resolve the Donbas situation as quickly as possible. Third is a compromise option: simultaneous snap elections. But this first of all means, again, amending the Constitution. In short, this issue cannot be resolved right now because everything depends, ultimately, on what agreements can be made in the Normandy format.
Déjà vu all over again
Ultimately, the most worrisome problem for the Ze! team is a shortage of human resources and the challenges that SN risks in getting strangers off the street involved in the process. It’s an open secret that, despite the enormous support Sluha Narodu attracted and continues to enjoy, Zelenskiy doesn’t really have a party and there are almost no local branches of SN. All there is is a brand that allowed them to win in the VR election. This is not likely to be repeated at the local level because there the logic of choice is very different. Moreover, MPs and local councilors have different functions. For SN to promote unknown quantities in the regions means to sink their own ratings. All that’s left to do is to come to terms with local elites and bet on existing regional parties or to establish some mix of local bandits and activists, which sets up a clash from the very start.
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Sluha Narodu is simply not ready for local elections. They don’t have the people, as the head of their VR faction, David Arakhamia, openly admitted recently in a comment on the possibility of early local elections in the spring. To join the race, SN would need to have nearly 150,000 people working with it, and it barely scraped together enough people to fill a list of 300 for the VR election. Arakhamia is clear that it makes no sense to get into a snap election if SN has no chance of winning because it’s not prepared institutionally or personnel-wise – and he’s right. Moreover, if the party is already under attack internally, and one of its sponsors, Ihor Kolomoiskiy, has begun shaking things up to such a degree, the entire house of cards of this “monomajority” could come tumbling down any day.
In short, it makes no sense to rush anywhere, all the more that both Zelenskiy and Kolomoiskiy have long been saying that if the SN faction proves unviable, the entire Rada will probably be dissolved. That this possibility grows with every passing day suggests that the country could well be in for an election marathon: two for the price of one, a snap parliamentary election together with regular local elections in the fall of 2020. Launching a new serial called “Sluha Narodu 2.0” will, if nothing else, save the producers the need to answer awkward questions, while still giving them the full advantage of a successful brand, killing two birds with one stone.
Translated by Lidia Wolanskyj