Despite its essentially local character, many observers (including in Russia) viewed the mayor and municipal elections held on October 25 in Ukraine as a referendum on the country’s geopolitical orientation. Above all, however, they turned out to be an interim report on the political neophyte President Volodymyr Zelensky and his party Servant of the People (SP).
When Zelensky became president in May 2019, he had to do two things. First, he had to act quickly to keep his anti-corruption promises. Second, he had to avoid making concessions to Moscow during the war in Donbass, which would undermine his standing as Commander in Chief of the armed forces and show his critics a naivete about Moscow’s ultimate intentions.
He got off to a good start. After an early parliamentary election in July of this year, around 80 percent of the seats on the body were handed over to new members. In a short space of time, parliament has formed a majority government that has passed an overdue law ending the immunity of seated members from civil suits. a law against illegal enrichment; a law under which Zelensky’s oligarchic ally Ihor Kolomoisky lost his offer to regain control of the private bank, which was nationalized in 2016; and land reform. Meanwhile, Zelensky himself has not been involved in corruption scandals, a rarity for Ukrainian presidents, and most of his colleagues have also remained on the right side of the law and morality. However, judicial reform is still in progress and many public service institutions remain weak.
The picture of Russia is not clear. Zelensky initially emphasized the defense of his country’s national interests, but over time he was lured into concessions to Russia that have diminished his standing with the pro-Western sections of the public. For example, in the fall of 2019, he withdrew troops from three segments of the Donbass Front without the separatist and Russian forces moving each other. He also banned his troops from returning the fire in those areas (an indictment the government has denied), which was deeply demoralizing for the soldiers.
Zelensky was criticized by Western powers for his Russia policy. In an unprecedented meeting in October this year, the head of the UK’s foreign policy intelligence service MI6 discussed with Zelensky concerns about sensitive information leaking abroad from Kiev. Zelensky was also grilled on BBC’s HARDtalk, where host Stephen Sackur revealed his paraphrase of negotiating successes related to the Donbass War. To many commentators at home, Zelensky appeared to be the latest in a long list of failed Ukrainian vassals who thought they could hone the cunning Kremlin.
In actual defense matters, however, Zelensky’s record is at least passable. At the beginning of his tenure, he visited the arms factory in Turkey, where the battle-tested Bayraktar TB-2 drone is manufactured and sold. Discussions are in full swing over the production of a larger Akinci model in Ukraine, which is already undergoing flight tests in Turkey and will use Ukrainian engines. More recently, he has revisited Turkey and signed a “goodwill” treaty that provides for an impending free trade between the two countries and continued close cooperation on arms development. This partnership should strengthen the Ukrainian military to withstand Russian aggression.
In addition, his government has agreements to buy coastal patrol boats from France, the US and the UK, each with benefits for technology transfer and co-manufacturing. The purchase of eight British Barzan patrol boats was confirmed in October under a major free trade and strategic partnership agreement between the UK and Ukraine.
In a way, Zelensky’s ambiguity about Russia served him well. However, he was trapped in the last election. On one side stood the Opposition Platform for Life (OPFL) – a splinter party founded in 2018 after the death of former President Viktor Yanukovich’s Party of Regions – based on an expressly pro-Russian embassy. On the flip side, there were politicians associated with former President Petro Poroshenko, whom Zelensky had previously described as too stubborn in his relations with the Kremlin. It is not the Russian aggression that prolonged the war, but the unreasonableness of the Ukrainian side.
Between these two poles, Zelensky had little leeway in the middle. It happened when pro-Russian oligarchs, tired of the president’s anti-corruption efforts, began to use their dominant positions on television to discredit him.
For Zelensky, the best chance of getting through unscathed if local concerns defeated foreign policy was when Ukrainians went to the polls. And there was reason for him to be hopeful. In Ukraine, national and local elections are different. The former deal with geopolitics, economics, and ideology, while the latter focus on social services. Which party offers the best administration generally wins their small districts.
In this regard, a poll conducted in mid-August provided a remarkable glimpse into public sentiment. A full 55 percent rated the honesty of the candidates as an important criterion before the local elections in autumn. A little more than 48 percent said they had experience in community management. Support for a personally preferred political party was only mentioned by 8.5 percent and the language of communication (regardless of whether the candidate mainly speaks Russian or Ukrainian) was mentioned by 6.3 percent. More than 34 percent of voters expected local conditions to improve after the vote if decentralization were implemented, while 4.7 percent expected it to deteriorate. These measures indicate surprising optimism.
In the end, voter turnout was 37 percent, about 10 percent lower than in 2015, indicating that the public wasn’t particularly motivated to make changes. Both the OPFL and Poroshenko’s European Solidarity Party received back part of the votes that Zelensky and the SP had received in the presidential and parliamentary elections. Some interpret this as a reprimand for Zelensky, but the party’s share of the vote largely suggests a return to an earlier pattern, which is not surprising given that new SP candidates are not particularly well known and established locally.
Regardless of the party, almost all incumbent city mayors who had a reputation for being an efficient provider of public services were re-elected. Many winners in the eastern regions were affiliated with or approved of the OPFL, but for both social and geopolitical reasons. In the vote in Kiev City Council, candidates who could be classified as pro-national (anti-Russian) received about 63 percent of the vote, while the OPFL received 7 percent.
These results show long-term continuity in basic public preferences, including considerable stamina in the OPFL. However, voter optimism could indicate that the decentralization of politics introduced by Poroshenko is having a positive effect. In the short term, decentralization marks the further democratization of the country, a departure from the centralizing Russian model. In the long term, it should also increase interest in local elections and strengthen civil society from the ground up.
With Ukraine’s progress in decentralization, local elections are becoming increasingly important. As a result of the decentralization, the local budgets were increased considerably and the infrastructure improved. Local political participation flourishes. More maids seem a long way off, as free elections can be lost by incumbents and won by challengers. Citizens see that their votes matter and that the election results are products of their preferences.
Local elections are therefore less evidence of national leaders than of local progress. This marks a ripening of democracy, with political parties being told that they need to create stronger public service institutions – including institutions that fight corruption and protect the security of the country.
As Alexis de Tocqueville once remarked, democracy enables people to correct their mistakes. Overall, Ukrainian democracy is on a satisfactory learning curve.