Five years after the Maidan “Revolution of Dignity”, which led Ukraine into a new era of democratic reforms and approximation with European standards, the state of democratic governance in Ukraine remains affected by alarmingly low levels of trust in institutions; widespread disappointment among the public with the achievements of reforms, especially with regard to corruption; and widespread skepticism about the possibility of transformative change in the nature of politics and the exercise of power. In recent years, anti-corruption reforms have set new standards of expected behavior and have brought extraordinary transparency into the backgrounds of candidates and the operations of elected representatives and political parties. This opens an unprecedented opportunity for a new generation of political leaders to emerge, with higher levels of integrity and better reflecting the diversity of the population, including by raising the number of women in elected office to a level much closer to parity.
Five months before the next parliamentary elections, the habitual resignation to the status quo in Ukrainian politics appears to be tempered with signals of hope for a new generation of untainted leaders to enter democratic processes without the baggage of patronage politics and entrenched elite interests. And yet, reports on electoral contests at the local level in the past three years regularly tell of on-going bad practices of vote-buying and manipulation. In order to better understand how a ‘level playing field’ can be ensured in future elections, obtaining a deeper contextual understanding of the integrity of the democratic process at the regional and local level across Ukraine is essential.
From November 2018 to February 2019, UNDP Ukraine conducted an “Analysis of the Integrity and Inclusiveness of the Democratic Process in Ukraine”. It is a research initiative with the financial support of the Global Affairs Canada, the Embassy of France to Ukraine, the Solidarity Fund PL/Polish Aid, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark. The study analyzed the conditions and parameters for integrity to take hold in the democratic process and for inclusiveness to be better provided for in the context of the 2019 and 2020 electoral cycles but focused on the periods outside the electoral campaigns as such. The focus was on the long-term trends and the barriers and obstacles for integrity and inclusiveness to take hold in the democratic process of Ukraine. The effort was analytical and diagnostic, and aimed at the larger, longer term objective of building effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels, including by substantially reducing corruption and ensuring responsive, inclusive, participatory and representative decision-making.
The analysis showed that since 2014, progress in implementing democratic reforms has been uneven. Evidence has yet to emerge that the nexus between business interests and politics is being seriously challenged, or that political life and decision-making processes are becoming more genuinely inclusive. Cronyism and corruption continue to be the defining features of Ukrainian political life in the eyes of many citizens, which seriously hampers the emergence of democratic processes based on integrity and inclusiveness. Taken together, however, the various reform efforts may over time have the effect of changing the rules of the game to the extent that the space for corrupt practices is diminished and that a more level playing field for democratic processes emerges.
Despite efforts by reformists in Ukraine’s political institutions and in civil society, the organizing principle of political life that determines the integrity and inclusiveness of the democratic process appears to have changed little in the five years since the Maidan Revolution. In the country’s regions, politics and decision-making continues to be dominated by a debilitating nexus of business and political interests existing in the shadow of the formal institutions of power but controlling them. This corrupted system perpetuates itself through the control and apportioning of resources within the closed circle of power.
Many Ukrainian citizens meanwhile feel left excluded from genuine and inclusive participation and are frustrated that the interests of the political elite in them only surge at election time. Women in particular are ill-served in a system which is overwhelmingly male-dominated. While the representation of women has increased somewhat in local councils, their numbers are not at a critical-mass level that would fundamentally change the traditionally male-dominated political culture. They are thus rarely in positions that determine overall policy directions and the allocation of resources. Young people and vulnerable groups such as Internally Displaced Persons, the LGBTI community, Roma and people with disabilities are also to a greater or lesser degree not fully included in political and public life.