Ukraine honeymoon election today

Ukrainians are voting today in an assembly election. It is a relatively extreme “honeymoon” election, as the new president, Volodomyr Zelensky, was just elected in March-April of this year (two rounds). There was already an assembly election scheduled for October of this year, which certainly would have qualified as a honeymoon election. But in his inauguration, Zelensky announced he would dissolve the Verkhovna Rada and call an election even earlier.

And why not? Based on much experience in presidential and semi-presidential systems, we know that there is a strong tendency for the party of a newly elected president to gain a large boost in votes the earlier it is held following the presidential election. This topic of the impact of election timing has been a theme of my research ever since my dissertation (1988), an early APSR article of mine (1995), and most recently in a whole chapter of Votes from Seats (2017).

At the time Zelensky was elected, various news commentary had the all-too-typical concern that the new president would be weak, because he is an “outsider” with no established political party. We got similar useless punditry when Emannuel Macron was elected in France in 2017. And we know how that turned out–his formed-on-the-fly party did slightly better than the 29% of votes I projected, based on an equation in Votes from Seats, prior to Macron’s own runoff win. (The electoral system helped turn that into a strong majority in the assembly.)

In May of this year, I projected that Zelensky’s Servant of the People party could get around 34.5% of the votes in an election held on 28 July. (One week earlier obviously does not change anything of substance.)

Early polling had him short of this (not even 25% just before the presidential first round), but predictably, SoP has been rising in the polls ever since Zelensky took office. The party almost certainly will beat this projection, and may even have an electoral majority. If short of 50% of votes, the party still looks likely to win a parliamentary majority, given the electoral system (discussed below).

A bigger boost than average (where the average across systems with nonconcurrent elections is what my projections are based on) is to be expected in a context like Ukraine, in which the party system is so weak. That is, poorly institutionalized party systems would tend to exaggerate the normal electoral cycle effect. The effect will be only further enhanced by low turnout, as opponents of the new president have little left in the way of viable political parties to rally behind. Thus a performance in the range of the mid-40s to over 50% of the vote would not be a surprise.

As for the electoral system and election itself, Ukraine is using again (for now, at least) its mixed-member majoritarian (MMM) system. It consists of 225 single-seat districts, decided by plurality, and 225 closed-list proportional representation seats, in a single nationwide district. The two components are in “parallel”, meaning seats won by any given party in districts and seats won from party lists are simply summed; there is no compensatory process (as with MMP). There is a 5% threshold on the list component; quite a few small opposition parties may waste votes below this bar. Due to parts of the country being under Russian occupation, only 199 single-seat contests will take place.

In some past MMM elections in Ukraine, a large share of the single-seat districts have been won by independents or minor parties, whereas the national parties (such as they are) have, obviously, dominated the nationwide list seats. It is probably quite likely that this rather extreme honeymoon election will result in most of the seats in both components being won by “Servants.”

On that theme, a tweet by Bermet Talant makes the following points (and also has some nice polling-place photos) based on conversations with voters in Kyiv:

• Ppl vote for leaders. Few know other candidates on party lists, even top5

• Servant of the People = Zelensky. Bscly, ppl vote for him again

• In single-member districts, ppl vote for a party too, not candidate

This is, of course, as expected. It is a completely new party. Many voters will be wanting to support the new president who created the party. The identity of candidates will not matter, either on party lists (where at least the top ones might be known in a more conventional party) or in the districts (where the vote is cast for a candidate). The single-seat districts themselves are referred to as the “twilight zone” of Ukrainian elections in a fascinating overview of the candidates and contests in the district component published in the Kyiv Post. These contests attract “shady candidates” many of whom are “largely unknown”. If a given election lacks a strong national focal point, it would tend to favor independents and local notables. In an election with an exceptionally strong focal point–as in a honeymoon election, more or less by definition–that will benefit whoever has the “Servant of the People” endorsement.

The timing of the election, and the likely dominance of an entirely new pro-Zelenskyy party, really is presidentialization at its very “finest”.

I am just going to quote myself, in the final paragraph of an earlier post about Macron’s honeymoon election, as it totally applies here, too: “All of the above should serve as a reminder of two things: (1) the purpose of the upcoming election is to ratify the new executive’s direction, not to be a second chance for an alternative vision; (2) the honeymoon electoral cycle matters.”

Expect the new Verkhovna Rada to be Servants of Zelenskyy.

6 thoughts on “Ukraine honeymoon election today

    • As it was, the election results were fairly in line with the exit poll findings, with Servant of the People polling 43.2% of the vote in the PR ballot and winning an absolute majority of seats in the Supreme Council. However, the party’s 199 district candidates won only 32.8% of the vote in the SMD ballot, while self-nominated i.e. independent candidates won 35.4%. One could say the “twilight zone” political show continues to draw good ratings, particularly in western and central Ukraine; had SMD seats been decided by the PR ballot result, Servant of the People would have won in 176 of 199 districts (as opposed to 130 under the actual outcome).

      At any rate, the party’s gap between PR and SMD shares of the vote varied considerably from region to region, but it was particularly pronounced in Transcarpathia, which was part of interwar Czechoslovakia.as Subcarpathian Ruthenia. In that region, Servant of the People won 49.9% of the vote in the PR ballot (and majorities in all of its six districts), but in the SMD vote it polled just 23.7% and carried a single district; however, a recount is underway on another district in the region where the party’s candidate narrowly lost to a local (and highly influential) oligarch.

      The outcome of Ukraine’s election a week ago closely resembles that of Chile’s 1965 legislative election, in which the Christian Democratic Party (PDC) of then-president Eduardo Frei Montalva – who had been elected in a landslide over leftist (and future president) Salvador Allende the preceding year – won an absolute majority in the Chamber of Deputies with 43.6% of the vote, far ahead of the other parties contesting the election. Chile had a PR system in place at the time, but the combination of district magnitude, use of the D’Hondt rule, malapportionment due to lack of redistricting since 1930 and PDC’s large lead worked to the party’s advantage. That said, Frei had to deal with a hostile Senate, where his party had won a majority of the seats up for election in 1965 but came up well short of an overall majority, and the right-wing parties which had backed him in 1964 as the lesser-of-two-evils over Allende largely opposed his moderate reforms (as did the left-wing parties backing Allende, who regarded them as limited and insufficient).

      However, President Zelensky and his party will have no such checks on their power, and it remains to be seen if they’ll honor their party name and act as servants of the people, or if they’ll end up – as we say here in Puerto Rico – serving themselves with a big spoon (in Spanish “servirse con la cuchara grande”).

      • I recall Transcarpathia has had distinct voting patterns from the rest of western Ukraine since 2004-05, and quite likely earlier. The region is culturally distinct. It is also really beautiful (the old website that this blog was attached to had some travel photos from our trip there in 2005). No, I am not claiming regional beauty as a reason for the voting patterns. But the area really does not look or feel like Ukraine at all. Nor does it sound like it. You hear Hungarian and some Romanian. At least as of 2005, very little Ukrainian. In fact, our guide found better success asking directions in Russian (given that he is based in Lviv and does not speak the first languages of the region).

  1. “… in his inauguration, Zelensky announced he would dissolve the Verkhovna Rada and call an election even earlier.
    And why not?”
    That’s a political science question; a lawyer could answer: because he hasn’t the power to dissolve at will.
    Apparently the constitutionality of the dissolution was dubious. The constitution “specified the preconditions of a premature dissolution thereby excluding that it is within the free will of the President to put an end to the Parliament’s term any time.” and those preconditions could not be met in time : one month after a ruling coalition breakdown but not in the last six months of the parliamentary term.
    https://verfassungsblog.de/strengthening-the-president-betraying-maidan/

    • Yes, it had always been my understanding that there was not an “any time” dissolution provision. I was surprised at the time with the matter-of-fact announcement of an early election.

      • Worth quoting this quite powerful passage from the blog Steven linked to:

        “By allowing the President to decide whether these conditions [for dissolution] are fulfilled in order to get a compliant parliament, the decision runs counter to all ideas which inspired the two revolutions (and which might have been forgotten even by the people itself, if one considers the lowest turn-out ever in Sunday’s parliamentary elections). “

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