A decentralization reform that can earn broad support from popularly elected local leaders in all parts of Ukraine may be the vital key to reducing regional tensions and building a stronger democratic system. Uniquely among parliamentary democracies, the constitution of Ukraine has given the President the power to appoint and dismiss heads of local and regional governments. Such centralized control of local government has exacerbated regional tensions and hindered the development of trusted democratic leadership in Ukraine.
Democracy is about voters having a choice among alternative candidates who are trusted to exercise power responsibly. When such trusted leadership is lacking, democracy is disappointing and fragile. 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. But when the president picks the local-government heads, we should expect them to be regularly chosen from among the president’s loyal supporters who are unlikely to develop any independent reputations of trust with the voters. Thus, presidential control of local government in Ukraine has tended to block the development of new leadership trusted by the people.
With presidential appointment of local-government heads, a President may be tempted to allocate powerful positions in local government as patronage rewards for major supporters who want to enrich themselves. This temptation will be greatest in those regions where the President would expect few votes even if his appointees provided good local government. But then everyone in such regions may fear bad exploitative local government from a President whose popular support is based elsewhere. So Ukraine’s centralized political system has increased political tensions between regions.
Thus, a decentralization reform can be the key for reducing regional tensions and developing trusted democratic leadership for Ukraine.
Most importantly, democratic decentralization can guarantee that every region will have popularly elected local leaders who have real power to serve their communities and who have a real stake in the national political system. So decentralization can strengthen Ukraine by developing, in every part of the country, a broad base of popularly trusted local leaders who are willing and able to mobilize local political support for the nation. In this time of crisis, such empowered local leadership has been greatly needed.
Ukraine already has popularly elected regional and local councils, but presidential appointment of local-government heads leaves these councils with little real power. The simplest and most effective way to decentralize power is to allow these councils to choose their own local-government heads, with clear administrative responsibilities and budgetary authority.
National law must be supreme in all parts of the country, and no region should have any special privileges that are not enjoyed by other regions. But supremacy of national law should not mean that one national official could block local government actions without independent judicial authorization. No single national official should have the power to prevent locally elected officials from serving their communities.
Under the constitution of Ukraine, a majority of the Verkhovna Rada could vote to call new elections for a local or regional government at any time. This power of a majority of national legislators to send local governmental officials back to face their voters’ judgment is a good way to guarantee supremacy of national law.
Even without a constitutional amendment, a candidate for President could promise, if elected, to appoint as local-government head whoever is designated by a majority of the locally elected council. Surely millions might want to vote for a candidate who promised that people in every region should have local government run by their own elected representatives, and that popular local leaders throughout Ukraine should have opportunities to show how well they can serve their communities. But such a promise would mean giving away an important presidential power, which is hard for any candidate to do.
It is very good that decentralization reforms are now being discussed in the Verkhovna Rada. However, the discussion should not be limited to people who hold national offices which give them a vested interest in the power of the national government. Ideally, all citizens of Ukraine should participate in the debate on decentralization. But the most important people who need to be included in a detailed discussion of decentralization proposals are elected members of the local and regional councils.
A successful decentralization plan should be one that can win the active enthusiastic support of as many local and regional councilors as possible. Support from such local leaders throughout Ukraine will be vital for the nation in these difficult times. The nation needs local leaders who can mobilize popular political support in every part of Ukraine, and such local leaders must be motivated by a credible promise of some real power to serve their communities.
In particular, against an insurgency, the local leaders who can re-establish government authority in their community will need protection. National security forces should help maintain order in a crisis, but local leaders cannot rely on them indefinitely. In a democratic society, secure rule of law can be assured only with local political support. Allowing democratic local governments to take some responsibility for local policing is the most straightforward way to ensure that elected local leaders can be confident of the basic protection that they and their constituents need.
Decentralization may seem risky or inconvenient to those near the center of national power. But if national leaders in Ukraine today can recognize the need for some constitutional sharing of power with locally elected officials, then popular local leaders should actively prefer inclusion in Ukraine to any alternative. The result should be a stronger and more democratic Ukraine that can better serve all its people.
[This is the latest in a series of notes in which I have tried to offer some perspective on questions of political decentralization that are being debated in Ukraine this year. This note was written for a conference in Kyiv on 16 May 2014. As in the previous notes, I have tried to provide a short coherent perspective on some of the major issues. Over the past several months, the privilege of participating in discussions about the challenges facing Ukraine has helped to deepen my own understanding of fundamental political problems of centralized democratic systems. In particular, I have learned much from discussions with my colleague Tymofiy Mylovanov. This note summarizes the most important issues as I understand them now, in mid-May 2014.]