Ukrainian political scene: a short guide

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Ukraine is a close neighbor and strategic partner of Poland, the work and connection with which only intensified with the beginning of the full-scale invasion of Russia on Ukrainian territories. What should one know about its political arena and key players?


Let us consider the Ukrainian political system in the layer of gradual historical development. In Soviet times, as a result of the liberalization of the totalitarian regime during the “perestroika” period, the first informal public associations were formed. Organizations of national-democratic, cultural-educational, human rights, and environmental orientation began to operate in Ukraine: the Ukrainian Helsinki Union, the Ukrainian Christian-Democratic Front, the Union of Independent Ukrainian Youth, etc. At first, through social movements, and then through political parties, significant strata of the population were involved in active state-building activities. During 1987–1989, more than 125 public organizations, groups, and associations were formed in Ukraine. The transition from a one-party to a multi-party political system was gradual. Multipartyism has become a tool of representative democracy in the country. The first officially registered political party in 1990 was the Ukrainian Republican Party. Then the Democratic Party of Ukraine, the Ukrainian People’s Democratic Party, the Social Democratic Party of Ukraine, the Green Party of Ukraine, the Ukrainian Peasant Democratic Party, the Party of the Democratic Revival of Ukraine, and others also appeared.


Characteristic features of this stage:

  • the formation of parties mainly “from below” (that is, on the initiative of citizens);
  • the predominance of center-right and radical-right parties;
  • the basis of party formation is public organizations and others;
  • atomization of the system;
  • party leaders are mainly cultural and scientific figures, former party nomenclature, and individual business representatives.

In 1994, the first parliamentary elections were held in independent Ukraine. In 2001, the Law of Ukraine “On Political Parties in Ukraine” was adopted, which regulated the procedure for the creation and operation of parties, which led to the strengthening of party structuring of society; led to a system of polarized pluralism; increased the role of centrist parties and the influence of business on the party system. After the Orange Revolution, there was a certain structuring of the party field, a conventional division of political forces into “pro-Western” and “pro-Russian”.

The post-revolutionary period was also characterized by a struggle between parties and blocs focused on specific political leaders — Viktor Yushchenko, Viktor Yanukovych, and Yulia Tymoshenko. The struggle for power instead of implementing the necessary democratic transformations proved the instability of the political system. In 2010–2011, with the restoration of the 1996 version of the Constitution of Ukraine and the adoption of the Law of Ukraine “On Elections of People’s Deputies of Ukraine”, the weight of political parties was significantly reduced, and the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine lost a significant share of powers. The mixed electoral system and the possibility of self-nomination of candidates in single-mandate constituencies were returned. In the same years, numerous falsifications were discovered during the parliamentary elections.

After the Revolution of Dignity, the ideological confrontation regarding geopolitical and humanitarian issues has significantly decreased. Instead, the problems of national security and the implementation of reforms in Ukraine were of primary importance. These events also led to changes in the support of political parties. After the 2019 presidential elections in Ukraine, extraordinary parliamentary elections were held (also under a mixed system). Significant changes have taken place in the party system. The following political parties entered the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine: “Servant of the People”, “Opposition Platform – For Life”, All-Ukrainian Association “Batkivshchyna”, “European Solidarity”, and “Voice”.

The crisis of trust in the old political elites together with the demand for new leaders, and the high level of support for the newly elected President V. Zelensky contributed to the high rating of the Servant of the People party. For the first time since 1990, a one-party majority was formed.


The dualism of electoral power and decentralization

Until 2014, Ukraine operated a rigidly centralized political system with a dualism of the executive branch of government and an unclear division of responsibilities at the local level. Decentralization aims to reduce the influence of the central government and transfer responsibility for everyday issues of citizens’ lives to elected local authorities. This should make not only local officials, but also citizens more responsible, and thus contribute to the democratic development of Ukraine.

Before the reform, there were four administrative levels in Ukraine: village/city district – district or city – region – country. Many villages were too small to provide quality public services to their residents. The decentralization reform provides for the creation of United Territorial Communities (UTCs), which will receive significant budgets for these needs. The target minimum population of OTG is 10,000 people. As of August 2019, UTCs covered 40% of the territory of Ukraine, and almost 30% of the population lived in them. 4,330 smaller communities were united in the UTCs, another 6,331 are to enter the reform.

In order to encourage the voluntary unification of communities, the newly created UTCs were given fiscal incentives – 60% of the personal income tax and 10% of the profit tax remain in the community, in addition, they receive subsidies and subventions for the development of infrastructure from the state budget. Decentralization has two important political implications. First, it enables the emergence and organic growth of local political leaders. In Ukraine, the traditional path to politics lies either through joining a party in which the leader acts as a “steamer”, or through bribing voters in a certain district – directly or through gifts or certain benefits for the community. Thanks to decentralization, local politicians have become motivated to provide quality services to the residents of their communities in order to move to a higher level. Second, expanding the influence of local government over most aspects of daily life would deprive voters of the opportunity to blame their problems on anyone other than their elected local officials. This should contribute to more responsible voting.

Of course, these changes will not happen overnight. Nevertheless, the first steps have been taken in the right direction and the reform should continue.

Speaking about the dualism of the executive power, The President appoints heads of local administrations, whose candidacies are submitted by the Cabinet of Ministers. The heads of local administrations are subordinate to both the president and the Cabinet of Ministers. This dualism of executive power enshrined in the Constitution creates the potential for conflicts between the president and the prime minister. It limits the Cabinet’s control over the executive branch, thus undermining its ability to implement its policies. The draft amendments to the Constitution, considered in 2015 as part of the decentralization reform, would not be able to solve this problem. However, the parliament did not vote for this bill due to the presence in the text of a clause on the special status of Donbas.


In times of war

The large-scale military aggression of the Russian Federation against Ukraine and the introduction of martial law could not but affect the political processes in our country. This influence is determined not only by the restrictions stipulated by the Law of Ukraine “On the Legal Regime of Martial Law”, such as suspension of elections to government bodies at all levels; ban on referendums, demonstrations, meetings, etc.; formation of military administrations. There are many other important factors caused by the war, which are already transforming the domestic political space of Ukraine today, creating various possible scenarios for its development in the future. Or, in other words, the questions arise: how is the map of key political figures changing? What decisive transformations will the political field of our country undergo? What will political Ukraine be like after the war? How not only not to weaken, but also in the conditions of war and martial law restrictions to continue to develop democratic institutions in Ukraine, including taking into account Ukraine’s acquisition of the status of a candidate for EU membership?


Several main components today characterize the transformation of the political system of Ukraine:

  • Change of information space. One of the features of the war period was the “short time horizon” – participants in the political process, experts and the media “are on the agenda for one to three weeks, and what happened the day before yesterday is no longer important.” In addition to the time deformation, the change in the structure of the information field is of considerable importance – when one channel actually became dominant on television (which is fundamentally different from the pre-war situation of competition between many channels belonging to various oligarch owners), and outside of TV, activity on the Internet on Facebook platforms is increasing. YouTube, Telegram, Tiktok – and all these platforms are legally not Ukrainian. On the one hand, the development of such a blogosphere carries the risk of increasing the shadowing of the media environment, but on the other hand, the growth in demand for social networks can contribute to the differentiation of the party system.
  • Lack of trust in the parliament. On the one hand, there was no fundamental change in the state management system. In Ukraine, the main branches of government continue to function with the distribution of powers in accordance with democratic standards. On the other hand, the discrediting of parliament continues, although the Verkhovna Rada continues its work and passed 15% more laws than in peacetime. One of the reasons for this situation is the lack of communication since during war it is naturally limited. Falling trust in the highest representative body of the country becomes a challenge for democracy in Ukraine, especially given that this fall is taking place against the background of the growing trust of the population in the power structures. The answer to this could be reform and improvement of the image of the parliament, as well as an increase in the quality of law-making activity.
  • The crisis of the party system. As noted by I. Pavlenko, a crisis of parties was observed in Ukraine even before the war. Sociological polls recorded a low level of citizens’ trust in parties, as in political institutions in general. The war also encourages the polarization of the political space, which may eventually lead to the emergence of two main groups of parties in Ukraine, or conventionally two “parties” – “military” and “civilian”. Already today, according to sociological polls, a trusted block consisting of the Armed Forces, the State Emergency Service, the National Guard, and volunteers stand out, and the second block is public organizations that, in particular, work on the diplomatic front, already have quite serious institutional structures and will have one hundred percent representation in the parliament. including – as a result of changes in party funding and its de-oligarchization. Developing the theme of the military in politics, it is also likely that the military will be involved in political parties, which will increase the level of trust in the activities of the latter.


Another feature of the political space of Ukraine changed by the war is the transformation of the lines of socio-political divisions. In particular:

  • Increasing the degree of militarization.
  • Full victory or peace treaty with the aggressor country, which after the end of the war will be transformed into a struggle of approaches to coexistence with the Russian Federation.
  • The search for a new model of economic development and fiscal policy, which is complicated by the share of economic potential lost due to the war.
  • Degree of openness/closedness of Ukrainian society to external influences.

After the war

An important aspect that will influence the political demands of Ukrainians after the end of the war is the presence of social post-traumatic with the subsequent radicalization of society. So we need to talk about the rehabilitation of state power, if we do not do it now – old negative practices (such as the return of oligarchs to the media and politics) will certainly cause radical opposition from the front-line soldiers and society and will shake the post-military stability of the state. The war as a socio-political phenomenon changed many people, awakening their feelings of patriotism, pride, and many other emotions. These people will participate in the political process as politicians, activists, and voters. The danger lies in an even greater division of society into active (who found themselves in the new political reality) and passive (the most socially affected) citizens. Therefore, the electoral confrontation may be based on a new principle – between electoral patriotism and paternalism.

The political process in Ukraine during the war is non-linear: on the one hand, politicians today are in an illegal position — the opposition cannot criticize the President because it raises the issue of national unity, but after the war, all the changes that were encapsulated during the war will begin quickly spill out into the open space. And here the length of the period between martial law and the first elections is of great importance.

Depending on how, and most importantly, when the war ends, the territory and time of the resumption of election processes in Ukraine will be determined. Front-line or de-occupied territories will not be included in political processes at the same speed. It follows that, for the first time in the modern history of Ukraine, a situation may arise when the western electoral regions will have a decisive influence on the formation of the future political space. However, social changes have led to a widespread growth of patriotism, so the conditionally affected eastern regions may turn out to be even more Ukrainian-centric and politically active than the western ones.

Obviously, the key factor in the transformation of the political space of Ukraine today is the Ukrainian society itself, which is changing under the influence of the war. Ukrainians are forming a demand for quick reforms and radical expectations for the emergence of a “new” post-war Ukraine without oligarchy, corruption, and inefficient bureaucracy. Openness, competition, liberalization, democracy, development of institutions of public participation — all these requirements are, at the same time, criteria for the European and Euro-Atlantic integration of Ukraine. The latter, as shown by the results of sociological surveys, is also the goal of the near future from the point of view of most Ukrainians.

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