Portugal’s Socialist Party wins re-election

5319The Socialist Party under António Costa has retained power in Portugal following yesterday’s general election. Results available at the time of writing suggest that the party has increased its share of seats and may seek to renew its agreement with the Left Bloc and Communist parties.

Diputados_por_distrito_(elecciones_a_la_Asamblea_de_la_República,_2015).svgPortugal elects its 230 seat Assembly via closed party lists based on 18 mainland regions, two self-governing island regions (Azores and Madeira) and separate lists for Potuguese living in Europe and elsewhere in the world. Each list elects between two and 47 MPs.

Provisional Results

(based on Interior Ministry statistics and before final overseas region reported) which include a thumbnail political compass indicator for each group:

  • Socialist Party (centre left) 36.7% (+4.4%) 106 seats (+20)
  • Social Democrats (centre right) 27.9% (a) 77 seats (-12)
  • Left Bloc (far left) 9.7% (-0.5%) 19 seats (no change)
  • Unitary Democratic Coalition* 6.5% (-1.8%) 12 seats (-5)
  • CDS-People’s Party (right wing) 4.3% (a) 5 seats (-13)
  • People Animals Nature (green) 3.3% (+1.9%) 4 seats (+3)
  • Chega (populist right) 1.3% (new party) 1 seat
  • Liberal Initiative (liberal) 1.3% (new party) 1 seat
  • Livre (eco-socialist) 1.1% (+0.5%) 1 seat (+1)

* UDC is an electoral alliance between the Communist Party and Ecological Party

(a) The Social Democrats and CDS-PP contested the previous election as a joint alliance known as Portugal Ahead and won 38.6% of the vote and 107 MPs.

Turnout was just 54.5% – the lowest since the revolution which restored democracy in 1975 and 1.3% down on the last election in 2015.

The Guardian suggests that this positive result for the left bucks the trend of recent elections in Europe. But whilst parties of the right and centre right have certainly won a good deal of recent contests across Europe, I would suggest that there is no general right-ward or left-ward shift in Europe as much as a move towards success for mainstream parties at the expense of the populist right and far left.

With at least 106 seats in the new Parliament, Mr Costa is in a stronger position with his former allies in the Left Bloc and UDC alliance but has indicated a willingness to continue the partnership with one or both groups. The People Animals Nature party now has four seats and may also enter coalition discussions. Portuguese law does not require the government to have an overall majority in the Parliament but requires the opposition to gather an absolute majority (ie at least 116 MPs) in order to defeat the government in a confidence motion or to block the government’s programme.

Reading List – 7th October 2019

– Democrats must act now to deter foreign interference in the 2020 election

Thomas Wright argues that President Trump is likely to allow or even solicit foreign interference in the next US election, but that Democrat candidates can head it off with well thought through deterrence. He believes that a threat that has a 40% chance of being implemented is enough to see off Russia or other states who might wish to interfere.

– State-building myths in Central Asia

Francisco Olmos looks at how the leaders of the new central asian republics turned to history to create a raison d’être. Several chose to hark back to historic conquerors and tribal leaders, real or mythological. But one centred its narrative on its first post-Soviet leader and another initially sought to avoid history in order to avoid threatening its Russian majority.

– Boosting the Role of National Parliaments in EU Democracy

Agata Gostyńska-Jakubowska of the Center for European Reform suggests that the EU should give greater powers to national parliaments in order to boost public understanding and support. But with many national legislatures less popular than the EU, will this help in those states? And with 28 (or 27) member states, is there any way for suggestions to be made that is not horribly complex and messy?

 

Rory Stewart makes things ten times more complicated for voters in London Mayor ballot

Rory Stewart is running for London Mayor as an independent. That makes voters’ choices ten times harder and could result in carnage in the election next May.

That Stewart would be forced to abandon his current seat of Penrith and the Border in Cumbria was pretty clear. He had been deprived of the Conservative whip by Boris Johnson (although he remained a member of the party) and so would not be able to re-stand as a Conservative in the seat he has represented for ten years. The seat had previously been represented by David Maclean and Willie Whitelaw and is unlikely to be anything other than Tory after the next election. Some suggested he might seek revenge by standing against Boris Johnson, but Stewart has chosen instead to throw his hat into the ring for the London mayoralty, a position formerly held by the PM.

So why does this make things especially difficult?

The problem is that the London mayor is elected by a voting system known as the Supplementary Vote (SV), often described as the worst of all worlds.

Using SV, voters are faced with a ballot paper which asks them to mark an X for their first choice in one column and a second X in a second column for their second choice. At the count, the first choice votes are added up and if a single candidate has more than 50% of the votes cast then they win. But if they don’t then the top two vote getters are put through to the second round and the second choice votes on the ballots cast for all the other candidates are examined and any votes for either of the top two are added to their total. The candidate with the most votes after this is done is declared the winner.

Here’s the problem. If you want to ensure that your vote counts then you need to know (or guess) which two candidates will make it through to the second round (there will surely be a second round in London). You can then pick which of those two candidates you prefer (or least hate). The good news is that you can safely cast your first preference for whoever you genuinely like on the full ballot list, even if you suspect they have no real chance of winning. The bad news is that everything after that is guesswork.

So who will make it through to the second round? At the moment I wouldn’t like to guess. Clearly the current mayor, Sadiq Khan, has a good shot. He is the Labour candidate in what is historically a Labour city. But remember that in the first London mayoral election the official Labour candidate, Frank Dobson, was not in the top two. So it can happen. And there are now three other strong candidates. Shaun Bailey is the Conservative candidate, Siobhan Benita is standing for the Lib Dems (who topped the poll in London in the European elections) and now Rory Stewart. Add in the Green Party and Brexit Party who have smaller but significant levels of support as well as countless fringe and independent voices and it all becomes very complicated.

Your first choice is not going to be a wasted vote but your second choice, and therefore your ballot as a whole, could well be.

Here’s how it works for my particular case:

I have a strong preference for the Lib Dems. Of the rest, I have some sympathy for the Green Party and I like Rory Stewart despite him being in favour of Brexit. I would prefer Sadiq Khan to Shaun Bailey. So I will cast my first preference for Siobhan Benita. If she does not come in the top two then I want my vote still to make a difference. If I cast my second preference for the Green candidate it will likely be wasted. I am willing to bet that Sadiq Khan will be in the top two but who will it be against. If it is Shaun Bailey then I would cast my second vote for Khan. If it is Stewart then he would get my choice rather than the Labour candidate.

Add in the fact that many parties will try to convince voters to just cast a first preference in the mistaken belief that anything else could damage them and you are in a right muddle.

There are two possible solutions to this mess.

The first would be to move to a proper two round system such as is used in France. After the first round, all but the top two are eliminated and a second vote is taken a week or two later with just the top two from the first round on the ballot paper. That way, voters can have a free choice without the risk that their vote will go to someone already eliminated.

Alternatively (pun intended), move to AV – the Alternative Vote. Here voters number all the candidates in order of preference – 1, 2, 3 etc until they cannot decide between the remainder. Candidates are excluded in turn from the lowest vote getting and their ballots distributed according to the voter’s next preference until one candidate has the support of more than half the voters. It may be that it is your fourth preference that is counted, but your vote will not be wasted. 

In my example I can safely vote:

  1. Lib Dem
  2. Green
  3. Stewart
  4. Labour
  5. Conservative

and know that if it comes down to a final round choice between Khan and Bailey then my choice will still matter.

Note: I am using the ballot preference above as an example. It aligns with my views at the moment, but things might change. Please don’t judge me too harshly if you have other opinions.

Facebook tightens rules on political advertising. But only in the USA

Facebook are acting to further tighten their rules on political advertising via their platform. According to a New York Times article, they will check the authenticity of those organisations running political adverts. The question is, how will this change affect countries other than the USA?

Facebook first took action last year in the wake of the revelations about Cambridge Analytica and the Russian interference in the 2014 and 2016 US elections. They maintain a political advert archive, require political adverts to carry the name and details of those who have placed them and release details of who has spent what money on such advertising. The latest changes come after accusations were made that some adverts were being labelled with the names of fake companies, thus hiding the real advertisers. In future, Facebook says, organisations will need to prove who they are before being allowed to advertise.

Whilst acknowledging that Facebook have taken positive action to try to limit disinformation, it’s impossible to ignore the multitude of problems that remain in the system. In particular, Facebook have seemed intent on rolling out a single regulatory framework for their platform across the entire world. This ignores that each country has its own unique electoral laws. Imposing (US-centric) rules does not help authorities in other countries ensure that their local laws are being obeyed.

This latest strengthening might indicate a departure from that ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach as it is difficult to imagine that the company will have the ability to check the bona fides of organisations advertising in, for example, Montenegro, Tunisia or Sri Lanka. So the question is, will this be an approach that only applies to the USA or does it indicate a willingness to address the specific needs of each country, starting with the US?

Doppelgängers

Whether it be jumping on a bandwagon or seeking to mislead the electorate, Ukraine has taken the lead in doppelgänger candidates causing confusion. But this year’s elections were not the first use of such underhand tactics and India, Russia, the UK and USA have all seen variations of this phenomenon.

Jumping on the Bandwagon

At the recent parliamentary elections in Ukraine, the Servant of the People (Sluha Narodu) party of new president Volodymyr Zelensky won an overall majority with 254 out of 424 seats contested. It was the first time in the history of the country since independence that a single party had got a majority in parliament, but this was hardly the most unexpected outcome. Zelensky had won more than 73% of the vote in the second round of the presidential poll four months earlier and, whilst a lot of that vote might have been against his opponent rather than for him, there was no doubt that Zelensky and his party were massively popular. So it came as no surprise when a lot of people sought to jump on the bandwagon to gain an advantage.

Servant of the People was a political party formed by Zelensky and named after his TV show. In that production he plays a history teacher who unwittingly becomes president after a rant about corruption is illicitly videoed by his students and goes viral. The naif as president concept became hugely popular and Zelensky rode it into office with a campaign based on TV and online campaigns. In his inauguration speech he called for early parliamentary elections (as well as fundamental changes to remove immunity for elected politicians and changes to the voting system). Despite a court challenge, these snap elections happened and Servant of the People was in prime position.

Servant of the People was not the only new party. The Voice (Holos) party also appeared on the ballot paper. This was the creation of popular musician Svyatoslav Vakarchuk. He had talked about standing in the presidential election but chose not to in a move widely seen to be co-ordinated with Zelensky. In the event of a hung parliament it was expected that The Voice Party would be likely to align with Servant of the People. As with Servant of the People, The Voice fielded a slate comprised entirely of political newcomers. No sitting or former MP was running as a candidate for either party.

 

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A polling station in Kherson district set up for the 2019 Parliamentary elections

 

Ukraine has a mixed voting system for Parliamentary polls (although this is the subject of one of the changes proposed by the President). Around half of all MPs are elected from party lists. The remainder are elected from single mandate districts using first past the post. It was in these districts that closer contests and electoral malpractice were expected as they pitched incumbents against representatives of the new parties.

Servant of the People and The Voice were so popular that many people sought to imply their candidacies were part of these movements even when they were not. This was impossible to achieve on the national vote where lists were submitted by registered parties only. However in the single mandate districts OSCE/ODIHR found 79 candidates in 55 districts who used the name Servant of the People to run against the candidate officially nominated by that party. (In addition, other candidates campaigned with colours, logos and slogans similar to Servant of the People.) The way these candidates got the name Servant of the People onto the ballot paper was usually by claiming to be employed by an organisation of that name, of which there are currently 44 according to Ukraine’s registry of legal entities. In addition, the name Holos was used by five independent candidates in single mandate districts and in one case each the names of Opposition Platform for Life, Opposition Bloc and European Solidarity were used.

Servant of the People complained to the Central Electoral Commission who decided that the reference to employment places which coincided with the name of the party would be removed from ballot papers in some cases. However it is not clear how many cases this applied to and whether or not ballot papers were re-printed.

One candidate who was particularly put out by the decision by Servant of the People to run entirely new candidates was a sitting MP from the Bloc Petro Poroshenko (which re-named itself European Solidarity for the elections) faction who, when Volodymyr Zelensky announced his intention to run for President, left his faction and became a cheerleader for the man who would become the new President. But he was declined the opportunity to run as an official Servant of the People candidate. This did not stop him trying to imply he represented the President’s party however. His campaign literature made frequent references to the party and president and even featured (genuine) photographs of him standing alongside Zelensky. Voters, however, were not to be fooled and he lost his seat to the official Servant of the People candidate.

It is impossible to say whether these cases were all bandwagon jumpers seeking to cash in on the popularity of Servant of the People or whether some were in fact attempts at spoiler candidates initiated by electoral opponents. The suspicion is that they were mostly the former, but Ukraine has a history of another form of doppelgänger, the ‘clone candidate’.

Clone Candidates

The most well known of these clone candidates is Yuriy Tymoshenko. Mr Tymoshenko stood in the presidential contest in March as a self-nominated (independent) candidate. He revelled in the attention he received because he happened to share a name with the long-established candidate (and former Prime Minister) Yulia Tymoshenko. The similarity was not confined to their family name and first name. Both of their fathers had the name Volodymyr and so, in the Ukrainian fashion, they had similar patronymics – Volodymyrovitch for Yuriy and Volodymyrivna for Yulia. When asked about this apparent coincidence, Yuriy Tymoshenko claimed that he had announced his candidacy long before his near namesake and claimed to be a serious runner. No one believed this statement and his limited campaign material appeared in the same colours and style as his more popular namesake and used the name Y.V. Tymoshenko (Ю́ В Тимоше́нко in cyrillic script). Yuriy Tymoshenko was a spoiler, or technical, candidate aiming to draw some votes away from Yulia Tymoshenko. This was helped by the ballot papers listing candidates in alphabetical order, something unchanged despite a court challenge from Yulia Tymoshenko. In the event, Yuriy Tymoshenko won some 0.62% of the vote. This was not enough to make a difference to the outcome of the contest – Yulia Tymoshenko came third with 13.4% and was 2.55% behind the second placed candidate – but was almost certainly far more than he would have gained on his own merits. Of the 39 candidates on the ballot paper, 26 who did little or no campaigning (like Yuriy Tymoshenko) won between 0.01% and 0.17% of the vote.

 

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Ballot paper for the 2019 Ukraine Presidential election showing both Yuriy Tymoshenko and Yulia Tymoshenko

 

It is impossible to be certain whether Yuriy Tymoshenko’s candidacy was his own idea or whether he was inspired or funded by other electoral opponents of Yulia Tymoshenko. In limited interviews he claimed to be standing entirely on his own initiative. However in the paperwork required for candidacy he declared an annual income of the equivalent of $10,000 against a deposit required for candidacy of $92,000.

Clone candidates existed in Ukraine before Yuriy Tymoshenko. In 2016 UKROP candidate Oksana Valentynivna Tomchuk was opposed in the 27th constituency in the city of Dnipro by near namesakes Oksana Ivanivna Tomchuk (who also claimed to be a member of UKROP in her biography), Oksana Valeriivna Tomchuk and Oksana Hrygorivn Tomchuk.

The concept continued into the parliamentary elections. OSCE/ODIHR found 152 candidates with 69 similar or identical names standing in 42 single mandate districts. Police opened 46 investigations and the observation mission estimated that nine of the contests could have been affected by the phenomenon in that a clone candidate gained more votes than a similarly named candidate lost by.

In constituency number 25 Andriy Valeriyovych Bohdan was standing and his biography mentioned a connection to Servant of the People. Coincidentally, President Zelensky’s chief of staff is called Andriy Bohdan. Except he wasn’t running for Parliament anywhere and his patronymic is Yosypovych, not Valeriyovych. The official Servant of the People candidate, Maksym Buzhansky won the seat.

In constituency 92 in Uzhyn there were four candidates called Guzdenko with the first name of either Viktor or Vitaliy. Two had the same patronymic of Ivanovych. There are also three Oleksandr Ferenets.

In constituency 33 in Kryviy Rih, there were two Olha Volodymyrivna Babenkos. One was standing on behalf of Yulia Tymoshenko’s Batkivshchyna party and the other was self-nominated. In the same constituency there was also a Mykola Yuriyovich Kolesnik and a Mykola Yuriyovich Kolesnyk.

In constituency 38 in Novomoskovsk, Dnipropetrovsk region, there was Vladislav Borodin from Servant of the People and Volodymyr Borodin, a self-nominated candidate, as well as two Vadym Nesterenkos.

Finally, in constituency 133 in Odesa, there were four people named Baranskiy — Viktor, Vitaliy, Vitaliy, and Ihor. The first two were candidates from the ideologically similar but politically separate Opposition Platform and Opposition Bloc, respectively. There were also Gontaruk and Goncharuk (both self-nominated), and two Artem Dmytruks, including one representing the Servant of the People party.

 

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Voter information posters on display at a polling station in Kherson district during the 2019 Ukraine parliamentary elections

 

Doppelgängers are not limited to Ukraine. In the UK there was a problem with candidates standing with party names designed to mimic other parties. One persistent candidate was Richard Huggett who stood in the 1994 European Parliamentary elections in the Devon and East Plymouth single member seat under the label of ‘Literal Democrat’. Mr Huggett eventually polled 10,203 votes, far more than the 700 vote majority of the Conservative candidate over the genuine Liberal Democrat. In the 1997 general election, Mr Huggett sought to stand under the name ‘Gerald Maclone’ in the Winchester constituency against sitting MP Gerald Malone. He was prevented from doing so but then stood with the label ‘Liberal Democrat – Top Choice for Parliament’. In an ensuing by-election in the seat he stood again under the ‘Literal Democrat’ label. Throughout, Huggett claimed that he was not acting on behalf of anyone other than himself and his antics, and similar undertaken by others, were only prevented by the 1998 Registration of Political Parties Act which stops candidates standing under labels which may confuse voters.

 

The Indian elections of 2014 present probably the largest single gathering of clone candidates. In one seat in Bilaspur district in the central state of Chhattisgarh no fewer than five of the 35 candidates were named Lakhan Sahu. In another, ten candidates shared the same name. The use of clone candidates might have less of an impact in a country where there are low levels of literacy and where many voters rely on party symbols to locate their chosen candidate. However there can even be similarity between symbols of candidates with the same name. In the seat of Maval in Maharashtra there were two candidates called Shrirang Barne and three named Laxman Jagtap with suspicions that each ‘real’ candidate had recruited at least one clone of their main opponent to confuse matters. The genuine Barne had the electoral symbol of a bow and arrow whilst his namesake was represented by an arrow only. The three Jagtaps were represented by a teacup, a cap and a helmet.

 

Shadow Parties

In Russia the concept of ‘shadow parties’ developed in 2003 and have been in existence ever since. The State Duma (Parliamentary) elections of that year were held at a time when Vladimir Putin was in his first term and the parliamentary elections were the first big test of his leadership. He was the head of the United Russia party but he faced genuine callanges from both the right and left, from the Communist Party and from the Liberal Democrats (now re-branded as LDPR but still led by firebrand nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky). And so Rodina was created, allegedly at the instigation of the Kremlin, to leach votes away from these two threats. They used the same symbolism and imagery as the Communists and many of the nationalist policies of the Liberal Democrats, and eventually gained 37 seats in the legislature.

It is worth repeating how shaky Putin’s grasp on power could have been in those days if he had not overseen the triumphant return of an overwhelming United Russia bloc. Russia demands a strong leader and strong leaders control parliament. In the event, United Russia won 37.6% of the votes in the national list element of the elections and just 24% in the cosntituencies, but this was enough for 223 seats overall due to the splitting of the vote. The Communists won 52 seats and the Liberal Democrats 36 seats. Had Rodina not stood, it is highly likely that the Duma result would have been far more balanced and United Russia may not have held an overal majority.

That was more than 15 years ago. But the practice of shadow parties continues. Even in the 2018 presidential election – one which Putin was certain from the outset to win and where turnout was seen as the big concern – there was a field of eight allowed. As well as the real Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF), the Communists of Russia (KR) were on the ballot – a party with much of the same imagery, the same idolatry of historic figures (maybe a little more Stalin than Lenin) and the same policy proposals. Every vote for KR was a vote that might otherwise go to KPRF. And this time Vladimir Zhirinovsky and the LDPR had to contend with Sergey Baburin, an eccentrically coiffured former MP with the wonderful ability to conjure nomination signatures from every district and region despite never actually having any activists in place to gather them.

At the same time, Putin’s campaign material looked strikingly similar to a lot of other posters on display on billboards around the country. But far from being mirrored by another candidate or party, the incumbent president had the same colour scheme and design as the official central election commission and so every one of their millions of posters could be taken at first glance to be one for the sitting president.

 

Spoiler candidates

In the USA it might not have been shadow parties that were used, but many elections have been swung by the existence of third party candidates with similar policies to one of the main players who have been given a mysterious boost by supporters of the other.

In ‘Gaming the Vote’, William Poundstone relates the story that John Dendahl, chairman of the New Mexico Republican Party, quietly offered “more than $100,000” to the Green Party if they would run candidates in NM’s first and second Congressional Districts. The Greens were relatively strong in New Mexico and had already been spoilers in local races. The difference was that the Republicans were now willing to pay cash for services that had previously been free.

Poundstone also cites the June 2006 special election for the Congressman from California’s 15th district, where Republican Brian Bilbray was a ‘foaming-at-the-mouth anti-immigration hawk who supported building a fence clear from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico’. William Griffith, a running as an independent using $2000 of his own money, claimed to be even more anti-immigrant than Bilbray. Then something odd happened. Phone calls started urging voters to vote for Griffith. Radio ads too. Griffith didn’t know who was behind them. Both later turned out to have been funded by Democratic candidate Francine Busby.

 

Legal changes in the UK have shown that it is legislatively possible to prevent parties with similar names or candidates standing under labels designed to confuse. However courts and electoral commissions across the world have proved reluctant to interfere in cases where candidates with similar names choose to stand against each other, regardless of their motivation or provenance. Party names and symbols can help to lessen the confusion, as can active campaigning by the ‘real’ candidate. But even in obvious cases, it is still possible for enough voters to be confused that they cast their vote for the spoof candidate and, in tight contests, this can be enough to make the difference.

Ukraine’s President gets what he wants out of Parliamentary polls but wants more

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A polling station in the Kherson region set up for voting in the Parliamentary elections

Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky got exactly what he wanted out of last weekend’s parliamentary elections – an overall majority for his Servant of the People party (Sluha Narodu), a good showing for other newcomers Holos (led by rock star Svyatoslav Vakarchuk) and the ousting of many of the oligarchs who have occupied seats in the Verkhovna Rada seemingly as of right for many years. Now he wants more and is seeking to bring forward local elections to this autumn.

Zelensky won the Presidency in April with 73% of the vote in the run-off against incumbent Petro Poroshenko. In his inauguration speech he immediately called for early elections to the country’s parliament. As a newcomer to the political scene – his experience until then had been as a comedian, TV producer and star of the Servant of the People show in which he played a school teacher who unexpectedly becomes President – he had no official support in the Rada and had no means of getting legislation through or enforcing his choices for many of the key positions running the country.

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A poster showing the party list and manifesto for Petro Poroshenko’s European Solidarity party on display at a polling station in the Kherson region

The challenge for Zelensky going into these elections was exactly how popular was he? Winning 73% of the vote in the run-off would indicate considerable popularity, but he only gained 30% in the first round and it was widely expected that he would need to form a coalition in order to govern. Most commentators assumed that the bulk of the second round votes came from those voting against the incumbent rather than positively for Zelensky. 

The Ukrainian electoral system was also stacked against him. Roughly half the seats are awarded on the basis of a national party list system – where Servant of the People could be assumed to do quite well. But the remainder would be awarded to the winners of first past the post single member constituencies. And many of the incumbents were well entrenched local oligarchs including factory and media owners and other local powerbrokers. In contrast, Servant of the People were putting forward completely new faces, many of whom were not even local to the districts they were seeking to represent. Whilst international election observers had not seen a great scale of electoral malpractice in the presidential poll, it was assumed that in these single mandate constituencies there would be more scope for bribery and other electoral malfeasance. Could Zelensky and his party turn their presidential ‘against the system’ message into a winning strategy for the Rada and overcome such barriers?

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A polling station in the Kherson region on Election Day

Well it turned out that they could do so in spades. The party not only topped the list vote, but won a majority of the single member seats too. Long time incumbents were unceremoniously defeated by political naifs and, even though OSCE/ODIHR and others reported instances of bribery, it appears that voters were savvy enough to take the cash or foodstuffs on offer and then vote for Servant of the People candidates anyway. Servant of the People won 16 out of 17 seats in Dnipropetrovsk, 8 out of 9 in Kyiv Oblast, 12 out of 14 in Kharkiv, and all 13 in Kyiv city. (1)

In the list vote, Servant of the People won in every region except three. In the far eastern regions bordering the rebel controlled areas of the Donbas, the Russia supporting Opposition Platform – For Life topped the poll and in Lviv region in the West it was Holos (Voice) that came top. But Servant of the People performed strongly in these too and came first in the remaining 22 regions.

Across the country, the list results were:

  • Servant of the People 43.2% 124 seats
  • Opposition Platform – For Life 13.1% 37 seats
  • Batkivshchyna (the party of Yulia Tymoshenko) 8.2% 24 seats
  • European Solidarity (the party of former President Poroshenko) 8.1% 23 seats
  • Holos 5.8% 17 seats

No other party won more than 5% and therefore did not exceed the threshold to win representation, although six other parties (2) gained more than 2% and so will receive some state funding for their activities.

In the single mandate constituencies, 

  • Servant of the People won 130 seats
  • Opposition Platform – For Life won 6 seats
  • European Solidarity won 2 seats
  • Batkivshchyna won 2 seats
  • Holos won 3 seats
  • Opposition Bloc won 6 seats
  • Svoboda won 1 seat
  • Self Reliance won 1 seat
  • and there were 48 independents and others elected

And so overall Servant of the People hold 253 of the 424 Rada seats (some 26 seats were not contested this time as they fall within Crimea and the Donbas areas which are not in government control).

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Defaced political posters in the Kherson region the day before Parliamentary elections

The scale of the transformation of the Rada cannot be over-stated. More than 300 of the MPs elected last week are new faces and not a single member on the government benches has served before. In one example, in the south-eastern Zaporizhzhya region, 29-year-old Serhiy Shtepa, a wedding photographer, defeated 80-year-old millionaire Vyacheslav Boguslayev, the owner of engine maker Motor Sich PJSC.

The elections were assessed positively overall by international observers including OSCE/ODIHR. They were competitive and respected fundamental freedoms with the voting and tabulation processes being assessed as transparent and smooth. Inevitably, it was not an error-free process and the country still has some improvements that could be made, but this was a general thumbs-up for these polls. The international community has also welcomed the results as being a positive mandate for continued reform.

 

At no time in Ukraine’s post-Soviet history has one party controlled a majority of the seats in the Rada. Such control now will allow Zelensky considerable leeway to mould the country in his image. But most commentators are still wondering what that image will look like. The President has made statements about wanting to end the war in the East, but Russia and the rebels are refusing meaningful engagement. A deal for a prisoner swap involving the sailors held by Russia since the Kerch Strait incident fell apart at the last minute as they had their incarceration period extended and the Ukraine court postponed a hearing to decide the fate of a Russian blogger. More recently, Ukraine has seized a Russian ship that it claims was involved in the blockade of the Kerch Strait. It appears that Zelensky is happy to ratchet up tensions with his biggest neighbour in order not to appear weak, although this might also make a deal more likely.

Domestically, Zelensky has made it clear that he wants to see the de-oligarchisation of the state. But his relationship with his patron (and oligarch) Ihor Kolomoisky is still unclear. Is this just a change of oligarchs with influence or is this a genuine clear out? Figures close to Kolomoisky such as Andriy Bogdan, who now serves as the president’s chief of staff, are heavily involved in policy-making and running the presidential administration. Ties to the former owner of PrivatBank may cast a shadow over Sluha Narodu’s fight against corruption, an issue many Ukrainians believe should be the top priority of the next parliament.

The mixed electoral system would seem to be on its way out. Zelensky has said that he wants to move to a single national list system – albeit an open list where voters can promote their favourite candidates rather than having to accept the order set by parties. It has also been suggested that there would be no threshold – leading to a plethora of small factions. Just before these polls the Rada passed a version of this system which the President said he was not happy with. It is set to come into force for the next parliamentary polls, but may well be changed again before that time.

And in order to complete his hold on power, Zelensky is turning his attention to local government. He has the power to dismiss figures such as the mayor of Kyiv, the former boxer Vitaliy Klitschko, but he also wants to see local elections brought forward. These are due to be held in October next year, but the President has said he wants to hold them this autumn instead. He faces some opposition in the form of the country’s constitution which mandates that local polls must be held on a fixed five year timetable. Changing the constitution would require two votes of the Rada in separate sessions, indicating that next spring is the earliest that polls could happen. But with a compliant parliament and a definite will, it seems likely that Zelensky will get his way even if it means backdating a constitutional change or holding local elections both this autumn and next.

Zelensky has been explicit in his backing for a western facing, pro European and pro NATO stance, but it is clear that the country will not become a member of NATO for many years yet. The alliance is unwilling to take on a new member which is de facto at war with a neighbouring state. Previous Ukrainian governments have also traded on their conflict with Russia, believing they can get away with a lot so long as they are battling the West’s main opponent. How long this situation can be taken for granted (if it ever could) is also in doubt. 

Zelensky will also be trying to change a system where a majority of voters may not actually support his ideology. According to a strategist for Holos:

“Most of Sluha Narodu’s voters did not support the president’s party because of its pro-market agenda, but because they expect the new ruling party to cut utility prices, raise salaries and improve social conditions in general.”

Despite his resounding success, it is clear that Zelensky will have to live up to the expectations of his backers if he is to have any hope of a second term. The Ukrainian people have shown how tired they are of the oligarch system. It will be a very difficult task to unpick it, but that must be the aim if Zelensky is not to prove a flash in the pan.

 

Notes:

(1) There was an issue with clone candidates who claimed to be part of Servant of the People but were not official candidates. OSCE/ODIHR believes that such candidates distorted the result in as many as nine constituencies. I will be writing about this as part of the wider ‘imposter’ phenomenon in elections at another time.

(2) The six other parties to gain more than 2% in the list vote and therefore be eligible for state funding are:

  • Radical Party of Oleg Lyashko
  • Strength and Honour
  • Opposition Bloc
  • Ukrainian Strategy of Groysman
  • Party of Shariy
  • Svoboda

United Russia makes way for independents in a bid to retain loyalist dominance in Russian regional elections

Russia’s regional and local elections in September will be a major test for the Putin regime, and it appears that his United Russia party is being abandoned in many regions as more loyalists run as independents. Reports also highlight activities designed to try to keep genuine competitors off the ballot.

The elections on September 8th will see 16 governors elected – many of whom have been appointed by Putin mid-term. In addition, 14 regions and the City of Moscow will select legislative assemblies and 21 other cities will choose municipal councils.

The gloss has come off United Russia after President Putin’s public opinion highpoint of 2014 and the annexation of Crimea. Pension reforms, corruption and even the expansion of rubbish dumps have all proved massively unpopular and the party is currently polling at around 35% nationwide – far below the 50% or more they secured in Duma (Parliament) elections three years ago. In key cities support might be as low as one in four voters.

Putin himself ran as an independent in the Presidential election last year and the vast majority of regional governors will be doing the same in order to keep the United Russia brand off the ballot. How much this will fool voters is open to debate.

There is also a switch to boost the proportion of single mandate constituencies in many council areas and a lessening of the number of party list seats. This too will allow loyalists to be elected as independents rather than relying on the United Russia label. This move has been unpopular with party apparatchiks however, as they have seen their chances of advancement fall dramatically.

But it might only be a short-term fix for the Kremlin. The next Duma elections are due in 2021 and by then President Putin will need to have a plan for securing a loyalist majority.

Putin’s strategy for regional governors has changed over the past cycle. More and more are being appointed from areas far from the region they will be administering. Perhaps this is a way of preventing the establishment of local power-bases or of testing people out for more senior ministerial appointments in the future. But it means that appointees have little in the way of local support when they have to face the voters.

Various tactics appear to be in use to ensure that governors and others face little real challenge in September. According to RFE/RL, opposition parties such as the Communists, LDPR and A Just Russia are declining to nominate candidates even in areas of strength, thus giving the Putin supported candidate a free run. Any other name on the ballot paper will be a token opponent to give a fig leaf of credibility to the contest.

In other areas there are claims that loyalist candidates are being put on the ballot paper thanks to false signatures and opposition candidates are finding it tough to gather their own signatures due to violence and intimidation.

Opposition leader Alexei Navalny has released a video purporting to show such a ‘signature factory’ in a local administration building.

Opposition candidates are also said to be finding their path to registration quite literally blocked as fake candidates are summoned to stand in front of them in queues to register and ‘terrorist threats’ are declared to prevent candidates having access to local administration buildings.

What will happen during the campaign period and on election day will largely not be visible. As is common with sub-national elections in most countries, international election observers have not been invited to view these contests. In addition, Russia has adopted a new law on domestic election observation which largely denies established and independent groups the ability to participate. Instead, a single ‘citizens chamber’ has been created in each area, made up of all NGOs and civic society organisations in the region. In reality, this means that the chamber is dominated by state employees and is not at all independent. OSCE observation of these chambers in the 2018 Presidential election (a mission of which I was a part) found that its members were not interested in proper observation and they were simply there to prevent genuine groups having access to polling stations.