Is the US a Model for Ukraine’s Electoral System?

September 6, 2010
James George Jatras

It would seem the International Republican Institute (IRI) and the National Democratic Institute (NDI) have lost sight of the old adage, “people who live in glass houses should not throw stones.”

In a recent joint statement, the two U.S.-government financed quangos labeled Ukraine’s new electoral law a “retreat” from democracy, asserting that it favors incumbents over challengers and established national parties over startups.

No doubt the statement is well meant, and some of its observations have merit. But reading through it, it is hard for an American not to measure Ukraine’s electoral system against our own.

With respect to the alleged tilt in favor of established parties, for example, what is the American record in this regard?

Ever since 1860 when the Republican Party first won the presidency under Abraham Lincoln, a Republican-Democrat “duopoly” has effectively divided the U.S. political “marketplace” between them.

Meanwhile, our legal system places severe roadblocks in the path of potential third parties. In most American states, the “two major parties” automatically qualify for a place on the ballot, while other parties and independents must undergo an expensive and cumbersome petition process. If two commercial firms were to carve up the marketplace between them the way the Republicans and Democrats do access to the ballot, they would be prosecuted for violation of antitrust laws and their executives put in jail.

In hard economic times, the perception of hand-in-glove collusion of the two established American parties feeds the cynical public belief that there is no real difference between them. Huey Long, a populist Democratic senator and governor of Louisiana, once compared American politics to a restaurant: “They’ve got a set of Republican waiters on one side and a set of Democratic waiters on the other side, but no matter which set of waiters brings you the dish, the legislative grub is all prepared in the same Wall Street kitchen.” Long was gunned down in 1935 while running for president.

Now, IRI and NDI are concerned that Ukraine’s electoral law could push local politics toward what we might ironically call the “American model” whereby small parties are squeezed out and they may well be right. But it seems Ukraine is a long way from a U.S.-style two-party duopoly. On the contrary, in a country like Ukraine, where parties are widely (perhaps cynically) seen as little more than vehicles for ambitious egos and/or corrupt interests, the stabilization that a two-party system implies might be a step in the right direction. Without going to the extreme of the U.S. government-established two-party lock on the U.S. political system, it should be noted that the politics of most stable democracies in Europe in fact tend to be dominated by a handful of parties with well-known, ideologically coherent policies and programs. If Ukraine takes a step in that direction, it might not be a bad thing.

Perhaps IRI/INI’s oddest criticism of the Ukrainian electoral law is that it provides “for a majority voting system for mayors, meaning that the candidate with a plurality wins, even if his percentage of the overall vote is small.” First of all, the law’s requirement that the political parties’ municipal organizations nominate mayoral candidates, and its elimination of self-nomination, is likely to reduce the number of candidates in any given mayoral election. As a consequence, there is a greater likelihood that the candidate who receives a plurality will have a substantial share of the vote.

But again, let’s take a look at the United States where run-off elections are virtually unknown at any level of government, and the rule is that the candidate receiving a plurality wins. (The only significant exception is the so-called “jungle primary” in, again, Louisiana, where crowds of multiple Republican and Democratic candidates, but rarely an independent or third-party candidate, all compete together; if no one receives over 50%, there is a run-off between the top two vote getters. Of course, in that case there is a second round—but often between two Democrats!) In short, whether or not a run-off system is a good thing is a matter for Ukraine’s legislators to ponder, but the U.S. experience cannot be considered much of a guide.

In the 19 years since Ukraine became an independent state, it is to be expected there will be ups and downs and zigzags as the country experiments with electoral “models” derived from other countries, including the United States. But in assessing the American example, people would be well advised to judge the American model less by what American say about it and more by how it functions in reality.

The Vekhovna Rada has taken a significant step in providing structure to Ukraine’s local politics. Let’s see how it works out before throwing stones.

James George Jatras is Deputy Director of the American Institute in Ukraine. He was for many years a policy analyst for the Republican leadership in the U.S. Senate.