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Post-Election Notes: Why Was the Turnout Low in Ukraine?

Voter turnout at local elections on 25 October was 36.88%. And this is the lowest turnout in the history of independent Ukraine. Many immediately began shouting about “betrayal” and, as always, accusing voters of irresponsibility and political nihilism. And this, in turn, proves their incompetence in political processes.

I have already written a lot about the constant tendency to reduce electoral activity and, accordingly, to increase the level of absenteeism. The reason is not the same – there are several, and they sometimes contradict each other. And this is not only a feature of Ukraine – it is a world-class disease. But if our politicians at least occasionally listened to political consultants and analysts (real, not bought pseudo-experts), they might not be shouting about low turnout now. And would draw the appropriate conclusions.  Therefore:

  1. The dynamics of electoral activity in Ukraine have been decreasing since independence. And this is a normal process. Thus, the turnout in the early parliamentary elections in 2019 was the lowest in the history of Ukraine. Prior to that, the turnout in the 2014 parliamentary elections was the lowest. And even earlier – in 2012… and so on. Regarding the statistics of turnout in local elections, the downward trend in turnout is the same: 1994 –6%, 1998 – 70.8%, 2002 – 69.3%, 2006 – 67.6%, 2010 – 48.7%, 2015 – 46.61%, 2020 – 36.88%.
  2. A decrease in turnout is also a typical phenomenon for many European countries of the post-socialist camp. The fall in the level of turnout in the parliamentary elections is observed in the Czech Republic, Poland, Romania, Latvia, and Estonia. It is significant that such a tendency is absent (or manifested to a much lesser extent) in Russia, Belarus, and Armenia, which can be explained by the “peculiarities of political regimes” in these countries.
  3. The main reason for the decrease in turnout in these Eastern European countries (including Ukraine) is the stabilisation of democratic regimes. No one is driving an obedient electorate to the polls. Citizens are aware of and enjoy their rights and freedoms – including the right not to participate in elections. This is precisely what is happening in the countries of young democracies, in contrast to the experience of communist and authoritarian-totalitarian regimes, which, if they did not force citizens to participate in elections, at least artificially stimulated them. Therefore, a decrease in turnout is to some extent a sign of democracy development.
  4. At the same time, it should be agreed that one of the main reasons for the decrease in turnout is frustration with the old political elites and distrust of the new ones.
  5. Also, our society is still politically uneducated: citizens are more actively involved in the presidential election, perceiving them as more important for the country. Even fewer participate in parliamentary and local elections. Thus, people exaggerate the importance of the President and his formal powers, underestimate the importance of Parliament in the political system of Ukraine. And they still do not understand what local self-government is and what significance it has for the country as the foundation of statehood and the basis of development everywhere.
  6. The crisis of electoral representative democracy, which David Van Reybrouk wrote about in his work “Against Elections.”

As for the low turnout in the local elections, there are also several reasons:

  1. The electoral activity was negatively affected by the COVID pandemic. According to a survey by the Rating group, about 10% of voters refused to vote due to the pandemic. Another 20% did not vote for health reasons.
  2. Turnout was also negatively affected by the complexity of the new election legislation and ballots. And although parties and candidates have been campaigning for new election rules, this was not enough – the voter has found the procedure too complicated and has decided to ignore it. To increase the turnout, the ballot had to be made as simple and clear as possible. And it would be better to finally introduce electronic voting to attract young people and simplify the election procedure.
  3. The so-called presidential poll also reduced the turnout. The idea of the central government to increase turnout worked exactly the opposite – it demotivated voters. Zelensky broke the basic agenda of the local elections, imposing his own, which is unclear to the voter. People did not understand why they should go to the polls – whether to legalise cannabis, or still elect local authorities, and, in fact, for what?
  4. Throughout the campaign, opinion polls showed undisputed leaders – the current mayors of megacities. So, the winners in the big cities were determined in advance, and many voters decided that their vote would not significantly affect the election results.
  5. And, finally, again, the crisis of confidence in politicians – both past and “new.” This is an indicator of total frustration in political representation. Voters mostly do not trust politicians, do not see alternatives, are afraid of being betrayed, and, most importantly, do not want to take responsibility for them. And this is not the fault of the voters, but of the politicians (although, of course, it is more convenient for them to shift the blame to some electorate).

The low turnout rate, of course, could have some implications for the legitimacy of the government. But in Ukrainian law, the mandatory turnout threshold was abolished in 1998 as not meeting the rules of European democracy. Therefore, the turnout is an indicator of the legitimacy of elected officials only in words and does not pose any threat to elected officials. Unfortunately.

Maksym Vozniuk, Political Expert

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