Monday, December 22, 2008

Election Rules vs. Parliamentary Regulations

Ukraine's politicians have regularly explored election rule reform to enhance their outcomes at the polls and increase their policy-making authority. The first post-Soviet election featured 450 constituencies, with winners selected via a modified majority runoff system and negative ballots. Voters would cross out the names of candidates that they opposed; candidates could only win a seat with a majority of positive votes. Because many districts did not produce clear winners, multiple by-elections were held and many constituencies went unrepresented. Election rule reform prior to the 1998 parliamentary election instituted a mixed electoral system, with 225 seats filled in constituencies using a plurality rule, and 225 seats filled through a national-level party list with a 4% threshold.

While conducting research in Kyiv in 1999, I spoke with one of the authors of the law instituting mixed election rules. He believed that the rules were more democratic, functioned better than the previous system, and would provide benefits to his political party (Rukh). This combination of normative and strategic motivations has influenced other reform efforts.

Prior to the 2002 elections, opposition politicians attempted to institute a fully proportional system in place of the mixed electoral system (as well as attempting to modify the mixed system). Although bills passed through the Verkhovna Rada, President Leonid Kuchma vetoed them. President Kuchma's position on PR changed after the 2002 election, and he packaged election rule change with a constitutional reform bill to co-opt legislators from the Communist Party and Socialist Party. Closed-list PR with a 3% threshold has been used in the last two parliamentary elections, held in 2006 and 2007.

With recent talk of another pre-term election, several election rule reform proposals have been floating around Kyiv. One proposal would have the party gaining the plurality in the PR vote earn minimally 226 seats (to guarantee a majority). A variant on this proposal would feature two rounds of competition (with the top two parties competing for a majority in a second round).

Since election rules have not produced a clear and stable majority, politicians have turned to other devices. Unlike other reform efforts that featured at least a normative veneer, the most recent proposal is designed solely for short-term strategic gains. Nazar Boyko reports in Obkom that politicians from the Bloc of Yuliya Tymoshenko have targeted parliamentary regulations as mechanism to gain advantages.

Boyko notes: "В зарегистрированном проекте постановления Андрей Портнов, не мудрствуя лукаво, предлагает упразднить норму регламента, которая предполагает необходимость личных подписей народных депутатов при создании коалиции. Бютовец считает, что уже самих списков членов депутатских фракций, которые формируют коалицию, будет вполне достаточно. ...Также Андрей Портнов не прочь пересмотреть порядок приостановления деятельности коалиции. Сейчас существование коалиции прекращается в случае, если происходит уменьшение численного состава коалиции к количеству народных депутатов, меньшему, чем определено Конституцией Украины. Портнов решил перекроить на свой лад: деятельность коалиции прекращается в случае выхода из состава коалиции депутатской фракции, вследствие чего количество депутатов в депутатских фракциях, сформировавших коалицию, стало меньшим, чем определено Конституцией."

The recent coalition breakdown was due, in part, to the narrow majority of seats claimed by its two participants (Bloc of Yuliya Tymoshenko and Our Ukraine-People's Self Defense) and the weakness of Ukrainian parties. Because parties have few tools to ensure deputy loyalty, deputies can defect from the leadership's preferences with limited consequences. The proposed change to parliamentary regulations would allow a coalition to form without obtaining the signatures of all members. Rather, the coalition would require that at the time of its formation, the participating factions have at least 226 members. Under this rule, a coalition could break down, but formally continue to exist with a small minority of deputies supporting it.

This proposal, like many other efforts at institutional reform in Ukraine, focuses on the short-term goals of its sponsors. While this proposal would strengthen the current coalition's position, it could generate a crisis of legitimacy if the coalition loses support among deputies. Moreover, this institutional reform sets an uncomfortable precedent by formalizing a "majority" coalition but precluding standard mechanisms to remove under-performing governments. Expect to see more proposals like this one down the line.

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