IDE Research Columns


Decentralization and the Incongruence of National and Subnational Elections in Ukraine

Decentralization and the Incongruence of National and Subnational Elections in Ukraine

Valentyna ROMANOVA
Institute of Developing Economies, JETRO

December 2023

In recent years, Ukraine has implemented a decentralization reform to rearrange the relationship between the central government and regional/local authorities. The core component of the reform was local amalgamation. Using analytical tools from the field of territorial politics, Romanova (2022) explores the impact of the reform on the congruence between the outcomes of parliamentary elections, regional (state) council elections, and local (city) council elections. The book compares the electoral performance of parties in these three types of elections, held before and after the reform implementation. It finds that the national and subnational electoral maps became increasingly dissimilar once the reform was finalized, but their increased incongruence did not undermine Ukraine’s political cohesion.

Decentralization Reform in Ukraine

In 2015–20, the unitary state of Ukraine implemented a decentralization reform. Its major component was the local amalgamation policy, aimed at consolidating resources in the hands of amalgamated communities (cities, towns, and villages) and enabling them to take proper care of basic public services, such as primary and secondary education and administrative service provision. As a result of local amalgamation, 10,961 communities (cities, towns, and villages) each with an average population of 1,500 people merged into 1,469 amalgamated communities. Thus, the number of local councils dropped from 10,961 to 1,469. However, the reformers tried but failed to introduce another component of the decentralization reform. They were unable to strengthen the only directly elected authority in the regions (the equivalent of “state” in federal countries): regional councils. In fact, regional authorities slightly lost ground for two reasons. First, the reform assigned a share of their duties to 1,469 amalgamated communities. Second, the reform introduced a direct interbudgetary relationship between the central budget and the budgets of 1,469 amalgamated communities, whereas many local budgets were “embedded” into regional budgets prior to the decentralization reform. As the OECD (2018) emphasizes, Ukraine’s decentralization reform shifted functions and funding across subnational levels by devolving certain important prerogatives of regional authorities to local self-government.

Decentralization Reform and Territorial Politics in Ukrainian Studies

The literature in the field of territorial politics suggests that decentralization reforms can make the outcomes of national and subnational elections more dissimilar, or less congruent (Chhibber and Kollman 2004; Thorlakson 2007). After the central government devolves more power to the regions, nonnational parties—parties that contest elections only in one or a few regions—tend to increase their vote shares in regional elections. The increased incongruence between national and subnational elections can have policy implications. Nonnational parties can use their improved representation in regional councils or regional parliaments to further politicize their relations with the central government. If nonnational parties with regionalist agendas come to office, they can request that the central government grant regional authorities additional self―rule. This bottom-up pressure can incentivize regional and local governments to demand further decentralization reforms.

Ukrainian Studies scholarship acknowledges the salience of the national and subnational cleavage for voting behavior but explores this matter only with respect to parliamentary elections (D’Anieri 2007; Way 2015). Romanova (2022) extends this analysis to study the interplay between the national and subnational cleavage in three types of electoral contests: parliamentary elections, regional (state) council elections, and local (city) council elections. To identify and explain the effects of decentralization on the outcomes of these multilevel elections, the book measures the level of congruence of parties’ vote shares in the parliamentary and regional (state) council elections in the same regions (oblasts in Ukrainian), as well as in the parliamentary elections and local (city) council elections in the corresponding oblasts and oblast capitals. In addition, the book compares parties’ frontrunners in parliamentary, regional (state) council elections, and local council elections in the same regions before and after the implementation of the decentralization reform.

Strong Impact of Decentralization on the Dissimilarity of Parliamentary, Regional, and Local Electoral Results

The results of the comparative analysis indicate that the dissimilarity between the outcomes of the parliamentary and local (city) council elections doubled once Ukraine’s local amalgamation policy was finalized (Table 1). This finding fully corresponds to the theoretically driven expectations articulated in Chhibber and Kollman (2004). On the one hand, the significantly increased incongruence between parliamentary and local electoral maps resulted from the electoral performance of the ruling party: it won by an overwhelming majority in the 2019 election and gained control of the parliament but faced severe losses at the 2020 local council elections. In contrast, the increased incongruence between the outcomes of parliamentary and local council elections reflected the increase in the votes for nonnational parties, often led by local city mayors. Prior to finalizing the local amalgamation policy, local elites contested local council elections through the national party lists of either ruling parties or opposition parties. Once local amalgamation was implemented, many of them contested local council elections under the party labels of city local mayors.

Table 1. Dissimilarity of Multilevel Elections Before and After Local Amalgamation

Table 1. Dissimilarity of Multilevel Elections Before and After Local Amalgamation

Notes: The author’s calculation is made using the formula that was first introduced in Palarés and Keating (2003). The dissimilarity index is calculated via (1) adding the differences between parliamentary parties’ vote shares gained in the parliamentary elections and either the regional (state) council elections or local (city) council elections in each oblast and (2) then dividing the sum by two.
Source: Romanova (2022).

In addition, the book highlights the significant increase in incongruence between the outcomes of parliamentary and regional (state) council elections after the implementation of the local amalgamation policy (Table 1). That increase does not correspond to theory-driven expectations. As in the case above, the major contributors to the increased incongruence were the ruling party, which heavily underperformed in regional council elections, and nonnational parties, which performed very well. The vote share of nonnational parties in the 2020 regional council elections averaged an impressive 42%. In contrast, the average vote share of the ruling party was 17%, while the average vote shares of two opposition parties were 15% and 12%.

The book attributed the significantly increased incongruence, which was also observed between the outcomes of the parliamentary and regional council elections after local amalgamation, to the spill-over effects from local (cities) to regional (states) electoral arenas in Ukraine. Prior to the decentralization reform, regional elites had been significantly more powerful than local elites. Regional elites used to promote regional (nonnational) parties, which gained representation in both regional and local councils. In turn, few local incumbent mayors could establish strong local nonnational parties, and none of them could perform well in both local council elections and regional council elections in the corresponding oblasts (states) and oblast capitals.

However, once the local amalgamation policy was implemented, this pattern came to an end. Regional elites lost their capacity and incentive to promote regional parties because the decentralization reform failed to strengthen regional authorities. City mayors, despite being mostly interested in winning city mayoral contests to stay in office, managed to establish strong local parties, which successfully contested both local council elections and regional council elections in the corresponding oblasts and oblast capitals. The local amalgamation policy enabled city mayors to perform many of those duties, which had previously been assigned to regional authorities. City mayors pointed to their performance in office as evidence of their capacity to address public needs and deliver their promises. Vertical simultaneity of regional council elections, local council elections, and city mayoral elections helped nonnational parties led by city mayors to deliver their messages to both regional and local electorates and win seats in regional and local councils.

Little Impact of Decentralization on the National/Subnational Relations

Although decentralization increased the incongruence between the outcomes of parliamentary and regional/local elections, neither national and subnational relations nor the central government faced any bottom-up pressures from opposition parties and non-national parties. There were three main reasons for this. First, the opposition parties overlooked subnational contests because parliamentary elections were their top priority. They did not gain many seats in regional and local councils won by nonnational parties, often led by city mayors, which limited their impact on national politics. Second, city mayor-led nonnational parties did not call for strengthening regional (state) authority because they did not want increased supervision over local (city) councils and city mayors. Third, the ruling party performed very well at the subsequent indirect elections of the heads of regional councils, controlling 11 out of 22 regional councils.

Unintended Consequences of Decentralization

While Ukraine’s decentralization reform was mainly aimed at improving the quality of public service provision in cities, towns, and villages, it had the unintended consequence of advancing the country’s political cohesion. In 2015–19, local amalgamation was voluntary and, thus, required considerable joint action from the residents of cities, towns, and villages nationwide. In 2020, the central government used administrative means to merge those cities, towns, and villages that had not been amalgamated. After the reform was implemented, most Ukrainians reported that provision of local public services improved (Council of Europe and Kyiv International Institute of Sociology 2021). The evidence of positive changes in newly amalgamated communities made people less inclined to engage in protest activities. Moreover, once electoral campaigns had concluded, parties that gained representation in regional (state) councils and local (city) councils opted to cooperate with the central government for the benefit of their constituencies. Thus, on the eve of Russia’s full-scale military invasion in February 2022, Ukraine’s political cohesion was in good shape. This has proven helpful for resisting the invasion and preparing the grounds for recovery.


Chhibber, Pradeep and Ken Kollman. 2004. The Formation of National Party Systems: Federalism and Party Competition in Canada, Great Britain, India, and the United States. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Council of Europe and Kyiv International Institute of Sociology. 2021. Decentralization and Local Government Reform: The Results of the Sixth Wave of Sociological Research. (Accessed November 9, 2023.)

D’Anieri, Paul. 2007. Understanding Ukrainian Politics: Power, Politics, and Institutional Design. Armonk, NY: ME Sharpe.

OECD (The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development). 2018. Maintaining the Momentum of Decentralisation in Ukraine. OECD: Multi-level Governance Studies. Paris: OECD Publishing.

Pallarés, Francesc, and Michael Keating. 2003. “Multi-Level Electoral Competition: Regional Elections and Party Systems in Spain.” European Urban and Regional Studies 10 (3): 239–55.

Romanova, Valentyna. 2022. Decentralization and Multilevel Elections in Ukraine. Reform Dynamics and Party Politics in 2010–2021. Stuttgart: Ibidem Verlag.

Thorlakson, Lori. 2007. “An Institutional Explanation of Party System Congruence: Evidence from Six Federations.” European Journal of Political Research 46 (1): 69–95.

Way, Lucan. 2015. Pluralism by Default. Weak Autocrats and the Rise of Competitive Politics. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

* The views expressed in the columns are those of the author(s) and do not represent the views of IDE or the institutions with which the authors are affiliated.
** Thumbnail image: Ukraine Election (sefa ozel / istock / Getty Images)