The Standoff Over Kiev’s Local Elections: Who Wins?

June 13, 2013
James George Jatras
Deputy Director, AIU

The recent decision of Ukraine’s Constitutional Court (CC) to the effect that elections for Kiev’s city council and the post of mayor will not take place until October 2015 has provoked two predictable and contrary results: First, claims from supporters of President Viktor Yanukovych and the Party of Regions (PoR) that the CC’s decision must be respected as a (nonpolitical) matter of law and good governance. Second, accusations from the Opposition that the CC’s action is (another) political power-grab by the PoR in violation of the constitution and of democratic and European standards. It remains to be seen which side will get more mileage from the controversy.

The CC’s decision, responding to an appeal from 48 Verkhovna Rada Deputies representing the ruling pro-PoR majority, was necessitated by the anomalous situation created by the expiration of the five-year term of Kiev’s city council members in May 2013. Add to that the fact that the city had been without a mayor for over a year since the June 2012 resignation of Leonid Chernovetsky, leaving key functions in the hands of the (Yanukovych-appointed) head of the city administration, Oleksandr Popov. In the absence of new elections, the CC’s decision would extend the powers of the expired council members’ mandate in office, which (depending on your point of view) either terminate at the end of five years or continue de facto until a new council is sworn in. Meanwhile, as indicated by Volodymyr Makeyenko, Chairman of the Regulations Committee of the Rada, new legislation may be considered on setting local elections in accordance with the CC’s decision, including possible merger of the positions of Kiev mayor and head of city administration.

The legal and procedural complexities are of course secondary to the obvious political agendas of the PoR and of the Opposition. Each side has an advantage to exploit and already is doing so with enthusiasm.

The benefits for Yanukovuch and his supporters are obvious. Postponement of any mayoral or city council race in Kiev – not exactly friendly PoR territory – until late 2015 deprives the Opposition of a campaign platform they can use as a mobilization tool in advance of the March 2015 presidential election. The pro-government side can simply pose as the defender of legality and the constitution, and of regular election processes. Indeed, Yanukovych adviser and head of the Coordinating Council for the Development of Civil Society Maryna Stavniychuk has said the CC was not specifically relevant to Kiev at all but that the court simply gave an “explanation according to European standards” and the “principle of periodic elections.” According to Volodymyr Fesenko, head of the “Penta” Center for Applied Political Studies, “The logic of the Court is understandable. Though the Constitution does not say it directly, there is a recommendation to hold local elections on the same date countrywide.” (However, the CC decision evidently didn’t affect the June 2 date for local elections in Yalta or elsewhere the PoR held an advantage.)

For their part, the Opposition will simply continue to scream foul and try to use the CC ruling as the functional equivalent of the platform they are being denied by the absence of the local electoral race itself. The Opposition can now have its cake and eat it too, with the opportunity to lambaste the government for antidemocratic methods and unconstitutional actions, plus any shortcomings in Kiev’s administration without having any responsibilities at all. Indeed, the Opposition can now avail itself of further legal options by challenging in court any and every action by the “illegitimate” Kiev government on the grounds it has no legal authority. It is a no-risk prospect and one tailor-made for western critics, notably for member governments of the EU and of the European Commission still grading Ukraine’s fitness for an Association Agreement and Free Trade Agreement. While western critics have not yet picked up on Kiev politics as a cause célèbre à la Tymoshenko, it’s a bloody shirt that can be waved for months on end, right up to 2015.

So, while certain objectives of government were fulfilled by denying the Opposition the Kiev a campaign platform, it also has strengthened the Opposition by giving them a long-term platform on democracy issues. At this point it’s unclear who’s ahead in the political blame game, but the better bet would be on the Opposition. To that extent, the most likely beneficiary is Vitaly Klitschko and UDAR, who should be happy to have a nice issue to exploit that doesn’t involve Tymoshenko.