Ukraine’s Parallel Electoral System: A Tool of Democracy or a Tool to Splinter the Opposition?

A student guest post on Ukraine’s recent elections, and why the rules of the game make it difficult for the opposition.

Ukraine’s legislative branch is a unicameral body known as the Verhovna Rada. The 450 seats in the Rada are allocated by a parallel voting system, in which half of the seats are distributed by proportional representation and half by single-member district. The threshold for seats based on proportional representation is 5% of the national vote. This means that a party receiving exactly 5% of the national vote would receive 5% of half of 450, or 225 seats, for a total of 11 or 12 seats depending on the other parties’ performance.[1] One party that recently crossed this electoral threshold is Svoboda, or the Freedom Party, a right-wing nationalist and populist party led by Oleh Tyagnibok. Svoboda has surged in recent years in response to the global economic crisis and the strengthening of the position of Ukraine’s Russophone population, winning a total of 12% in Ukraine’s fall 2012 elections.[2]

The balance of single-member districts and proportional representation seems, on the surface, to be more democratic. In theory, this system balances the rigid party control of proportional representation against the possibility for wasted votes in single-member districts in an attempt to mitigate both hazards. However, as David Herszenhorn of the New York Times writes, in practice parallel systems can have the effect of tilting the scales in favor of majority parties despite declining popular support. Herszenhorn writes: “[I]ndividual candidates endorsed by the majority party tend to have a huge advantage in name recognition and resources in local races, and… candidates who run locally as independents can often be enticed to join the majority party when the new Parliament is formed [by] perks offered by the presidential administration.”[3] This is exactly what happened in Ukraine’s fall 2012 elections, when President Yanukovych’s Party of Regions was re-elected as the country’s governing party despite growing opposition from parties like Svoboda. As Herszenhorn points out, the case of Ukraine’s most recent elections may be the inspiration for Russia’s recent return to the parallel system, as Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party faces mounting anger in the streets.[4]

Ukraine’s democratic system faces greater threats than the parallel electoral system. Widespread intimidation of opposition candidates, including the high-profile jailings of Yulia Tymoshenko and Yuri Lutsenko, threaten the safety of anti-government activists, while state dominance of media outlets prevents minority parties from communicating with voters. Corruption is also an endemic problem in Ukraine. Pavlo Rizanenko, an anti-corruption City Councilman from Brovary, was hospitalized in 2011 after being beaten in the streets by four men with rubber clubs.[5] Though the parallel system has its own causes and its own problems, these problems are merely symptoms of a wider crisis of democracy in Ukraine.

[1] CIA World Factbook: Ukraine. Accessed Feb 28, 2013,

[2] David M. Herszenhorn, “Governing Party Claims Victory in Ukraine Elections,” The New York Times, Oct 28, 2012. Accessed Feb 27, 2013,

[3] Herszenhorn, “Putin Orders Change in Electoral Rules,” The New York Times, Jan 2, 2013. Accessed Feb 28, 2013, Puget Sound Moodle.

[4] Ibid

[5] Herzsenhorn, “Observers Denounce Ukrainian Elections, Citing Abuses by Rulers,” The New York Times, Oct 29, 2012. Accessed Feb 28, 2013,


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