Big Break Broken

With Zelensky-led Servant of the People Party failing to reload local authorities, rivalry with opponents is taking on new forms.

What to do next?
Bohdan Ferens
PhD in Political Science, founder of SD Platform
One more election cycle in Ukraine is drawing to a close. President Volodymyr Zelensky and his party had to face a test of the local election, which took place last Sunday, October 25. The headquarters of the Servant of the People party relied heavily on the president's still high personal rating, which, they believed, was supposed to fill local councils with as many loyal members as possible. With the official results still to be announced, it is quite obvious that the ruling party has failed to repeat its last year's triumph.
The topic of holding a local election was seriously discussed in the President's Office as early as a year ago. Zelensky's team was aware that after the uber-successful presidential and parliamentary campaigns, it would be logical to try to reset local authorities as quickly as possible. But given the absence of legal grounds or adequate human resources for holding an early local election at that time, the available forces were directed to forming its own power vertical.
Meanwhile, local elites, gradually recovering from the shock of the parliamentary election, were preparing for a fierce struggle to retain local power.

And virtually, retain they did. The preliminary results illustrate an electoral victory of incumbent mayors in almost all major cities. As recently as ten years ago, this would have been difficult to conceive, with the central government's effective use of the administrative resource to absorb, almost inevitably, local politicians and officials.
But times have indeed changed. Neither the power vertical built by President Zelensky nor his personal rating has significantly helped in the struggle for influence on the ground.

The record low voter turnout of about 37 percent also did not play into the hands of the Servant of the People party. For comparison, in 2015, this figure stood at about 47 percent. This is partly due to the fact that the interest in presidential and parliamentary elections is traditionally much higher than in local ones. The perfectly understandable desire of people to avoid the risks associated with COVID-19 also played its part.
Even the idea of President Zelensky to hold an all-Ukrainian poll on some social and political issues in parallel with the election required a more careful preparation and better organization of the process itself. As a result, the whole thing with some sort of a demo version of a referendum was only partly supported by adherents of the president.

There was no doubt that people would endorse proposals related to the reduction in the number of MPs, security demands and life imprisonment for corruption. It is, however, an open question what to do next. For the further mechanism of response to the results obtained is not entirely comprehensible.
Neither the power vertical built by President Zelensky nor his personal rating has significantly helped in the struggle for influence on the ground.
This stands in stark contrast with the regional elites for which the purpose of fighting on the ground was abundantly clear. It is thanks to the decentralization reform that incumbent mayors, officials and members of local councils have more serious opportunities, primarily of a financial nature, to bring about changes. In all fairness, it should be noted that over the past five years, many regional centers have been qualitatively transformed, with infrastructure developing, cafes and restaurants opening and creative spaces for young people being set up. Accordingly, the accumulation of substantial financial resources on the ground has sparked interest in local self-government. Many regional politicians, who previously sought a ministerial position or a seat in parliament, abandoned the idea and set about building a personal brand, forming around themselves groups of influence including businessmen, bureaucrats, security officials and local intellectuals.
It was the personal rating of a certain mayor (sometimes the support of incumbent mayors reached 60-85 percent) as well as direct communication with voters that served as the major resources for opposing the ruling party. Another factor that influenced the voting pattern was the government's ability to swiftly respond to threats posed by the rapid spread of COVID-19.

It was well-thought-out positioning and prompt action during the pandemic that allowed Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko to significantly prop up his rating and lead the election. At the same time, the candidate from the Servant of the People party, Iryna Vereshchuk, failed to garner even ten percent of the voters' support. Another emblematic surprise in the Kyiv election was the return of Oleksandr Popov, who previously chaired the Kyiv city state administration under Viktor Yanukovych. He ran for mayor from the Opposition Platform - For Life party and, according to preliminary data, finished in the runner-up spot.
In some regions, however, the presidential party still managed to gain significant electoral succor, which will allow, as its head Oleksandr Kornienko put it,"to form situational coalitions with other parties while also advocating the depoliticization of local councils."

It is no secret that for the main political players who are in opposition to the current administration, the local election are a groundwork for future changes in the distribution of power. After the first results of the exit polls were announced, many experts brought up a possible split of the one-party majority in the Verkhovna Rada as well as the holding of an early parliamentary election in 2021. To avoid such a scenario, the ruling party will need to strengthen internal communication with members of parliament, identify its weaknesses and try to maintain the existing potential for a further struggle against opponents, which is sure to take on new forms.
As tall an order as it may be to recover from the disastrous defeat of yesteryear, quite a serious support in the local election gives the opposition hope to turn the tables.
At least two main political antagonists - former President Petro Poroshenko's European Solidarity party and the Opposition Platform - For Life - will look for any opportunity to change the status quo. As tall an order as it may be to recover from the disastrous defeat of yesteryear, quite a serious support in the local election gives the opposition hope to turn the tables. For the previously articulated narrative of President Zelensky about the desire to "sew" the country back together is not fully reflected in real life: The electoral preferences of Ukrainians in the local election have again exposed the problem of division on regional grounds. The east and south of Ukraine traditionally support pro-Russian political forces, whereas the west and, partly, the center vote for pro-European parties.

Therefore, one of the main priorities of President Zelensky in the near future will be to strike a balance in the current distribution of power as well as a policy of"appeasing" those financial and industrial groups that failed to get their piece of the pie in the form of full access to state assets.
At the same time, the authorities have yet to face greater economic challenges, which are nothing but exacerbated by the pandemic both in Ukraine and around the world. It is necessary to understand that entrepreneurs who were able to keep their businesses afloat after the spring quarantine have run out of a financial safety margin. Moreover, in the event of an industrial decline, job cuts and a drop in GDP can be expected.

The governments of the world's leading economies have invested billions of dollars in support measures. Thanks to this, it was possible to restore production in Germany, reinvigorate China's economic potential and reduce unemployment in the United States.
Unfortunately, in Ukraine, such financial opportunities can only be dreamt of, thus making internal political stability and a sober perception of the current situation urgently needed in such an ever-changing time.
«The article was published in the journal «Internationale Politik und Gesellschaft (IPG)»
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