Ukrainian Elections Are Another Example of Partisan Bias Caused by Winner-Take-All

by Sara Helmi, Devin McCarthy // Published November 26, 2012
Ukraine fireworks

The 2012 parliamentary elections in Ukraine, held on October 28, have been cited as evidence of a backslide in Ukrainian democracy from the promise showed in the Orange Revolution of 2004. The consensus among international observers is that the elections were "rigged," in various ways, to benefit the ruling Party of Regions, headed by President Victor Yanukovych. The election results suggest that they were right, but that the single biggest cause of electoral bias was Ukraine's election of so many seats according to winner-take-all voting rules.

One of the largest nations in the former Soviet Union with a population of over 45 million, Ukraine has been led by President Yanukovych since his election in 2010. The most salient issue in this election was that two of Yanukovych's high-profile political opponents, former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko and former interior minister Yuri Lutsenko, have been imprisoned for what seem to be political reasons. Furthermore, the ruling party has been accused of using state-run television and newspapers for political gain and being opaque about the origins of its campaign funds.

The biggest setback for Ukrainian democracy in this election, however, may have been structural. Between 2006 and 2011, Ukraine used a fully proportional party list system for electing its legislature, the Verkhovna Rada. In the 2007 parliamentary elections, for instance, the Party of Regions received 34% of the popular vote and 39% of seats in parliament, while the Yulia Tymoshenko bloc won 35% of seats with 30% of the popular vote. There was very little structural bias in favor of one party.

But in November 2011, the Party of Regions succeeded in passing a new electoral law that required half of parliament to be elected using single member districts, while the remaining half would still be selected based on a nationwide (not compensatory) popular vote. An OSCE report on the 2012 elections described the process of drawing up the new electoral law as "not fully inclusive." The law was essentially a reversion to the system that had been used in Ukraine from 1998 through 2005. 

The new law dramatically favored the Party of Regions at the expense of most opposition parties, particularly the Yulia Tymoshenko-led All-Ukrainian Union. In the half of the legislature elected by proportional representation, the Party of Regions won 72 seats for its 30% of the vote and the All-Ukrainian Union won 62 seats with 26% of the vote. In the constituency seats elected on a winner-take-all basis, however, the Party of Regions won 113 seats to the All-Ukrainian Union's 39--a massive distortion. The Communist Party of Ukraine, which garnered 13% of the party list votes and 32 seats from those votes, did not win a single winner-take-all seat.

To put those results into an American context: in the 2012 House elections, Republicans received 25 more House seats than they likely would have under a national proportional voting system, giving them a majority in the House despite Democrats winning more total votes and an underlying national preference for Democrats of more than 3%. In Ukraine's 2012 elections (electing a similarly-sized legislature of 450 members), the Party of Regions won 41 more seats than it would have under a fully proportional system. Had Ukraine elected its entire legislature using winner-take-all like the U.S. does, the Party of Regions would have had an 82-seat structural advantage.

There are many problems in Ukrainian democracy that must be fixed in order to ensure a level playing field in future elections. Changing the new electoral system that saw the ruling party win more seats than it did in 2007 despite receiving considerably fewer votes has to be a priority for pro-democracy reformers in Ukraine.