Democracy is about voters having a choice among alternative candidates whom they can trust to exercise power responsibly. When such trusted leadership is lacking, democracy is inevitably disappointing and fragile. A presidential election can give prestige to its winner, but it does nothing to develop the broader supply of trusted alternative candidates on which the success of democracy will ultimately depend. This essential supply of trusted democratic leadership can develop best in responsible institutions of local government where successful local leaders can prove their qualifications to become strong competitive candidates for higher office.
Do people in Ukraine feel frustrated by a scarcity of candidates who have developed good reputations for exercising power responsibly in elected office? In other countries, trusted candidates for national leadership are regularly found among governors and mayors who have proven their abilities by delivering better public services in the government of a province or a large city.
But the Сonstitutions of Ukraine (in both currently disputed versions*) have given the President the power to choose all provincial governors. The incumbent President is the national politician who would have the most to lose from the development of more trusted competitive candidates for national office. Under this constitutional system, we should expect provincial governors to be regularly chosen from among the President’s loyal supporters who are unlikely to develop any independent reputations of trust with the voters.
The transition to an independent democracy in Ukraine was never going to be easy, but I believe that this deeply flawed constitutional structure was also an important contributing factor that people should recognize and try to change. The best hope for developing trusted democratic leadership would be from decentralized local politics in which governors are ultimately responsible to the local voters within their province.
Some who hope to gain national power might be tempted by the prospect of appointing dozens of supporters to powerful local offices throughout the country. But those who truly want to build a strong competitive democratic system in Ukraine should consider supporting constitutional reforms that would decentralize some share of responsible power to locally elected leaders in each province.
Locally elected councils already exist in each province or oblast of Ukraine. A constitutional reform to give these local councils the power to choose their own governors could be a vital step toward easing regional tensions and building stronger democracy in Ukraine.
For more information, see the Ukraine Decentralization Initiative website.
*Note: There has been some dispute about the legality of constitutional amendments that were passed by the Verkhovna Rada (parliament) in 2004. These amendments increased parliamentary control over the national government but did not affect Article 118, which gives the President the power to appoint and dismiss the heads of local state administrations.
[See also my 2011 blog post about decentralization in Egypt and Ukraine.]