A Call for Political Decentralization in Ukraine

Anti-Yanukovych protesters warm themselves next to a fire in Kiev's Independence Square, Ukraine, Wednesday, March 5, 2014. S
Anti-Yanukovych protesters warm themselves next to a fire in Kiev's Independence Square, Ukraine, Wednesday, March 5, 2014. Stepping back from the brink of war, Vladimir Putin talked tough but cooled tensions in the Ukraine crisis Tuesday, saying Russia has no intention "to fight the Ukrainian people" but reserves the right to use force. As the Russian president held court in his personal residence, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with Kiev's fledgling government and urged Putin to stand down. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)

KIEV -- Critical problems in Ukraine today call for urgent consideration of basic constitutional reform. Ukraine's constitution gives the president the power to appoint and dismiss all local governors -- presidential power over local officials is extremely unusual among parliamentary democracies. This centralized control of local government has exacerbated regional tensions and hindered the development of trusted democratic leadership in Ukraine.

Locally elected councils already exist in each province or oblast of Ukraine. A constitutional reform to give these local councils the power to choose their own governors would be a vital step toward stabilization.

The devolution of some real authority to locally elected officials can guarantee that policies of local government will be responsive to the preferences of local residents, and will not just depend on which group can get a national majority in a presidential election. Thus, decentralization could help to reduce critical tensions between the regions of Ukraine.

A vibrant local democracy could also do much to provide a forum where new local politicians can prove their leadership abilities, gain the trust of the people and get executive experience.

Democracy is about voters having a choice among alternative candidates who are trusted to exercise power responsibly. When such trusted leadership is lacking, democracy is inevitably disappointing and fragile. A presidential election can give prestige to its winner, but it does nothing to develop the broader supply of trusted alternative candidates on which the success of democracy will ultimately depend.

This essential supply of trusted democratic leadership can develop best in responsible institutions of local government where successful local leaders can prove their qualifications to become strong competitive candidates for higher office. In many countries, trusted candidates for national leadership are regularly found among governors and mayors who have proven their abilities by delivering better public services in the government of a province or a large city.

But an incumbent president is the national politician who would have the most to lose from the development of more trusted competitive candidates for high office. So when the president picks the governors, we should expect them to be regularly chosen from among the president's loyal supporters who are unlikely to develop any independent reputations of trust with the voters. Thus, presidential control of local government in Ukraine has tended to block the development of leadership trusted by the people.

Some who hope to gain presidential power might be tempted by the prospect of appointing dozens of supporters to powerful local offices throughout the country. But those who truly want to build a strong competitive democratic system in Ukraine should consider supporting constitutional reforms that would decentralize some share of responsible power to locally elected leaders in each province.

These questions of constitutional reform belong to the people of Ukraine, but people everywhere hope that they will find a way to build a strong sovereign democracy. A large group of distinguished economists and political scientists in Ukraine, Russia, Europe and America have joined in support of a call for serious discussion of political decentralization in Ukraine. More information is available at the website of the Ukraine decentralization initiative.