Participants of the Election Marathon "Local Elections: Risk Assessment and List of Solutions", held by Civil Network OPORA on April 22, discussed how to organize and hold the next local elections in autumn, in regard to the legislation and in practice, in line with international standards of free and fair competition.

During the first block, dedicated to legal regulation of future elections, participants discussed major tasks of legislative regulation of elections, challenges for holding elections in Ukraine, and positions regarding key drawbacks in electoral legislation for local self-government bodies (inadmissible change of the election system, representatives of local election commission (procedural aspects), and local exert groups. Senior Analyst of the Civil Network OPORA Oleksandr Kliuzhev moderated the discussion.

Head of the Central Election Commission Oleh Didenko said it's important to simplify both election administration for election commission members, and participation in the race for candidates and local party cells. He also informed that the CEC had prepared a comprehensive set of amendments to the Election Code (particularly to the part on local elections), which were sent to the competent VRU committee. "The CEC tried to regulate the abovementioned issues in a systemic manner, i.e. to detect and remove all the gaps and inconsistencies, optimize the structure of the fourth book of the Code, and unify its regulations," - Oleh Didenko said. However, he also said the Commission is concerned about problems and risks: "Talking about the risks, we may face procedural difficulties if the open-list proportional system is used for a bigger part of local elections".

MP from the Servant of the People faction, Deputy Chairman of the Committee on State Government, Regional Development, Local Self-Government and Urban Planning Alina Zahoruiko has confidently affirmed that regular local elections will be held on 25 October in line with the Constitution of Ukraine, and commented on key regulations of the Draft Law #3485 on Amendments to Some Laws of Ukraine on Improvement of Electoral Legislation. “Draft Law #3485 is a comprehensive document. Our Committee was a foundation for the development of common position of different factions," - Zahoruiko said. The MP said that the election system threshold (15 thous.) may change before the second reading, and suggested that it may even become higher, up to 30-35 thousand. "I would accept this option, because such elections are easier to administer", - Alina Zahoruiko said.

At the same time, the Head of Lutsk City Election Commission Leonid Budtsev mentioned the obvious difficulties in local election commissions: "Local elections differ from parliamentary or presidential by a fact that a big pile of work is loaded on district election commissions. They must order campaign materials and ballots, and realize the districting by themselves. And there is no help from the CEC." The representative of territorial commission also mentioned another problem, particularly that PECs are not professional and don't receive enough financing. Budtsev also emphasized that it's necessary to introduce a clear regulation for the appointment of city mayor if the elected one withdraws: "Lutsk is the only one oblast center, which doesn't have a mayor. Mykola Yaroslavovych died and the election hasn't been called yet. It should be a regulation saying that the election must be called after one month. We should not wait until the Verkhovna Rada has a political will to appoint elections."

PhD in Political Science, Expert at the Team Europe Kharkiv Initiative of the EU Delegation to Ukraine Yuliia Bidenko also stated that "The understanding of election system will be the greatest challenge for civil society at sites." Bidenko emphasized that it's necessary to regulate campaigning on social networks: "It's important to track paid posts and label them as advertising." As a representative of local expert circles, Yuliia Bidenko commented on the local party development: "It's a big question for me. The Parliament cancels state financing for parties, but talks about increased party influence."

Another participant of the discussion, Mayor of the Chortkiv city Volodymyr Shmatko, had also mentioned this topic. He said, that there are no parties in Ukraine, but only political projects: "Local elections directly concern the development of local communities. This is not politics. Elections to Chortkiv City Council are not about policy of Kyiv." Shmatko says that decentralization reform is aimed to "Help the people choose effective managers on sites."

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Participants of the election marathon's second block "Organizational challenges, security and proper financing" continued discussing some of the issues raised. Thus, they spoke about organisation of elections during the pandemic, probability of early mail or online voting, increased impact of social networks on campaigning; and campaign financing in the economic and financial crisis. Head of the Board of the Civil Network OPORA Olha Aivazovska moderated the discussion.

Deputy Head of the CEC Vitalii Plukar spoke on the issue of future election financing. He said that the budgeted financing is insufficient to properly realize all the procedures required by the Election Code: "The CEC hopes to receive extra financing once the expenses were cut to 1 billion UAH." He added: "Territorial election commissions will face new rules for holding local elections. Therefore, it is very important for the CEC to receive adequate financing. The reason is, both vote count and tabulation are quite complicated. The CEC, for its part, will provide interpretations and consultations to help TECs and PECs realize the required procedures." Vitalii Plukar emphasized that it is necessary to develop optimal solutions to avoid the spread of COVID-19: "Supplies vary from country to country. For example, early voting is provided by the law  in South Korea." He believes that Ukraine cannot introduce electronic (online) voting, as it may hazard the reliability of election outcomes: "We hear today discussions and the certain ideas, particularly from representatives of the Cabinet of Ministers, concerning online voting. I personally do not believe it's possible to introduce online voting today. We don't even have internet in some settlements. We may face a number of hazards and obstacles that eliminate all efforts in organization of fair and just elections." According to him, the CEC supports innovations in election procedures: "Our suggestions for the Committee on Amendment of the Election Legislation have a clause concerning the start of discussion on introduction of machine voting. However, this is an entirely different thing. This is about automated voting at an election precinct with a mandatory paper trace. Besides that, it's about an innovative opportunity of introduction of electronic vote count."

First Deputy Head of the National Council Valentyn Koval told about the new media legislation: innovations in the election process and powers of regulatory bodies. Valentyn Koval reminded that according to the current legislation the National Council is not a participant of the election process: "Previous parliamentary and presidential campaigns in 2019 gave the regulatory body an opportunity to accumulate experience. At the same time, having analyzed possible ways of how to respond to the course of election race and to detected violations in the media, we got quite sad results." The National Council representative had also mentioned that political advertising is also present in the media outside of an election campaign: "There are no response mechanisms for non-election period, the legislation doesn't have them. The Code obliges the National Council to take measures if any violations are detected, and the regulatory body understands it as an opportunity to impose sanctions. However, there is no way to accelerate the processes. Thus, the response may again take more time that the election process itself," - Valentyn Koval said. The expert also informed that the law regulating the media is being prepared for the repeated first reading. "This draft law obliges the National Council to regulate online environment. Thus, it will also concern the monitoring of compliance with election law on the Internet,"- Valentyn Koval said. "The National Council is generally ready for local elections, in accordance with the requirements of current law. However, if new legislation and regulation of the Internet is introduced, the biggest ambition for the regulatory body is to have time to prepare well for the implementation of its new functions." - he summarized.

"Verkhovna Rada has the ball now, - member of Dnipro City TEC Andrii Husak said, - and it is in its authority to facilitate our participation in 2020 local elections." He also noted that his ambition is: "To ensure the election of worthy representatives and managers for local citizens. They should not be chosen by parties. To ensure this process free from any interference, and hold the election place in any weather." Increased party influence in local self-governments is bad for the society, and proportional system is complicated in implementation. These are the challenges of upcoming autumn campaign. Another member of the Dnipro TEC noted that it is urgent to amend the law on public procurement and simplify procedures.

Mayor of the Novoukrainka city (Novoukrainka City UTC in Kirovohrad oblast) Oleksandr Korinnyi told about difficulties waiting for those organizing and administering elections on sites: "I hope that they will not load local budgets with insufficient state financing. Our budget has already been underfinanced, and lacks 2.7 million. Thus, we will not be able to find extra financing. And we see that it's necessary. The elections must be held in such a way that there is no doubt in the results." Mayor of Novoukrainka gave an example: "We haven't had new voting booths in our community since 2010. Every time a head of precinct commission goes to the village head, or to a farmer asking for boards. They must be reimbursed from the State Budget, but it never happened." Like most representatives of local self-government, Oleksandr Korinnyi expressed a negative attitude to increased party influence: "Being a council member is volunteering. Does anyone believe in free volunteering, which costs UAH 7,000 for a person? They no longer want party influence, and now they have to pay for it," - the Mayor said.

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Electoral reform, particularly the part related to local elections, is closely related to the reform of local self-government and territorial organization of governance. The issue of this connection and interdependence was discussed by the speakers of the third panel discussion "Decentralization reform and local elections", moderated by Analyst of the Civic Network OPORA Oleksandr Neberykut. All discussion participants agreed on the need for synchronization of elections and the decentralization reform.

MP from the Servant of the People faction, Head of Sub-Committee on Administrative and Territorial System of the Committee on Organization of State Government, Local Self-Government, Regional Development and Urban Planning Vitalii Bezhin affirmed that the amendments will be made yet in current session in June, to guarantee the elections at the corresponding administrative and territorial level: "Powers should be discussed when it's the issue of raions. There is nothing to discuss about administrative and territorial system now, we are moving on a locomotive." The MP also commented: "The information about Plan A and Plan B began to take shape and open to public yet in fall. It was clear that amendment of the Constitution is a complex process. And now, during the quarantine, Plan B has actually become Plan A - amendment of the certain laws." He also said: "Due to the amendments that the parliament is working on now, it is possible to take a step towards representatives of local self-government."

"In terms of creating communities across the country, we are completing the administrative system in the shortest possible time, - informed Ivan Lukeria, Adviser to the Minister of Development of Communities and Territories of Ukraine. - There was a long discussion concerning the configuration of communities, long-term plans, and determination of administrative centers, and I think that 90% of the task was done right." The expert also explained that there is a main stage of reform, particularly its comprehensive completion through amendments to the Constitution - the completion of decentralization reform and changing the paradigm of territorial governance. He said that it's impossible to change the paradigm without changing the Constitution. Instead, it's possible to finish the main stage of local self-government reform under current Constitution. As for the issue of elections to rain councils and their future, which is important for the biggest part of the audience, Lukeria said: "The discussion should not be held in raions, it's the primarily concern of state government bodies. We are talking about the number of raion councils with minimal powers, with minimal budgets. Residents do not care about the quantity of raions." In addition, Minister's advisor promised that once the quarantine is over, they will restore discussions with participation of associations, experts and city mayors, to find an optimal model of governance, which will be introduced into the Constitution.

At the same time, Oleksandr Khoruzhenko, who is ex-leader of Sumy regional office of the ULEAD with Europe program and expert on the implementation of decentralization reform, had emphasized that there are more and more challenges related to the election process, when switching from the reforming concept to local elections. The expert believes that it is necessary to build communication of the parliament, the government and political forces with citizens and explain the "game rules": the level of political competition, the requirements, and powers of politicians, who will gain the power on sites. Khoruzhenko believes: "Politicians and parties that will nominate candidates to district councils must understand the game rules for the year ahead, because the mandate and their activities are being devalued."

"Today the parliament keeps stepping on the same rake, like the previous did, i.e. it is changing the rules right before the elections," - Head of Lviv Oblast Council Oleksandr Hanushchyn stated. He believes that amendments to the Election Code that are being proposed today could significantly harm local self-government: "Increased party influence harms towns and cities with under 15,000 citizens, because there are no parties there." "As for district councils, - Hanushchyn stated his opinion, - we will take a political decision not to hold elections. The Rubicon has been crossed."

The position of local self-government bodies was also presented by the First Deputy Head of the All-Ukrainian Association of Communities Ivan Fusenko. He stated that it's inadmissible to hold local elections under the party system, and emphasized that communities of the same level must have the same election system, a majoritarian one, which will guarantee adequate representation of all rural settlements in a city council: "We think as follows: village and settlement councils may be of any size under the draft law, and hold elections under the majoritarian system." He also expressed the position of the All-Ukrainian Association of Communities on the expediency of revising in the Parliament long-term plans of regions that violated the methodology of community formation.

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Are parliamentary parties ready for an increased party influence? This question was discussed during the fourth block of the marathon. Speakers discussed how to form a high-quality electoral list; avoid a "formal approach" to the gender quota requirements; recruit new party members and form personnel reserves. The participants also discussed a procedure of candidate approval for city heads and electoral lists, nominated by local cells, by party leaders. Analyst of the Civil Network OPORA Anatolii Bondarchuk moderated the discussion. Members of the six political parties currently represented in the Parliament spoke about their views on the matter.

Thus, the MP from the European Solidarity faction, co-chair of the parliamentary faction Iryna Herashchenko believes that while the ES is in opposition, this is a good time for renewal: "Now is a good time for us to form as an ideological party". The MP emphasizes that the party is increasing its local representation, to make local factions as strong as the parliamentary one. "Talking about local elections, we will rely on party members. Perhaps, we will engage some bright personalities who share our ideology, but 80-90% of candidates on the list will be from our party," - Ms. Herashchenko stated.

Olexandr Korniienko, MP and Head of the Servant of the People party, the first deputy chairman of the parliamentary faction, admitted that he is not a fan of strong party influence, but considers it a tool that may solve many political problems. The politician noted: "The very idea of open lists for big subjects is a step forward compared to the legislation of 2015, and a step forward towards strong party influence." Korniienko also told about party preparations to autumn elections: "We are working on digital solutions that will allow citizens to access formation of lists and nomination of candidates in majoritarian districts during the pandemic. It may be elements of primaries or post-primaries."

"We are a personnel party. We are not a mass party, we are not aimed at quantitative indicators, - Roman Lozynskyi, MP of the Holos faction, said. - We have around a few hundred of members now. We understand that people want to enter the party  before the election for some other reasons than to grow in politics. We treat this with caution."

MP from the Batkivshchyna faction, Head of Lviv Oblast Party Cell Mykhailo Tsymbaliuk reminds: "It is important that political forces, which are preparing for local elections remember that life exists after the election too." The MP reports that the party is now renewing the team in all local authorities. When selecting candidates, it focuses on the following three principles: professionalism, morality, and patriotism. "We believe and that a person should feel political responsibility at first, and only then run for parliament. Only a person who, according to the law, cannot be a member of a party can run as a candidate while being not affiliated," - Tsymbaliuk summarized.

MP Tatiana Plachkova confidently affirms that the Opposition Platform - For Life will nominate candidates to all UTCs, oblast and city councils. However, she admits that the quarantine hinders party activities and the development. "We are ready for local elections in Odesa oblast. I am working on party development in Odessa oblast. We plan to have 38 cells instead of 20 in the oblast to be closer to the people, - Plachkova informed. - The rating of a party in a particular region depends on the work of local councilors." As for gender equality, the MP as a woman supports it and admits that she represents the party that has the fewest women in the Parliament.

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The event is organized with the support of the American people through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and with the support of the European Union, and may not reflect the position of USAID, the US Government or the EU.

Informational partners of the event: Hromadske.ua, Gazeta.ua and Suspilne media.