I wrote this for the November issue of “Lanruzh” (the magazine which enables my organization to operate):
It’s election time as I am writing this. It is interesting, as a foreigner, to be here during election time. I am seeing billboards, commercials, newspapers, and other advertisements for different parties. At first, I ignored them, thinking they were not relevant since I am not a citizen here. But then I started paying attention to the ads, and I started wondering why some would show a person, and others would show a group of people. And what is with all the different parties? I had to find out more about what was going on, and why I was seeing so many candidates for offices.
The party system is a foreign concept to me as an American. In order to explain why, I need to provide you with a little bit of background.
The United States is a federal constitutional republic in which the President of the United States, Congress, and judiciary share powers reserved to the national government, and the federal government shares sovereignty with the state governments. Our local officials and members of Congress are elected by popular vote, but the election for President and Vice President is not a direct election by citizens. Citizens vote for electors, representing a state, who are the authorized constitutional participants in a presidential election. Because the United States does not have a parliamentary system, we do not have a Prime Minister.
The political party system in the United States is a two-party system dominated by the Democratic and Republican Parties. Several other third parties from time to time achieve relatively minor representation at the national and state levels, but the Democrats and Republicans have won every presidential election since 1852 and have controlled the United States Congress since at least 1856.
Ukraine has a semi-presidential representative democratic republic and multi-party system. Executive power is exercised by the Cabinet, legislative power is vested in the parliament, and your President is elected by popular vote for a five-year term. Ukraine’s President nominates the Prime Minister, who must be confirmed by parliament. The Prime Minister and cabinet are de jure appointed by the Parliament on submission of the President and Prime Minister respectively. In addition, the Verkhovna Rada members are elected by party-list proportional representation.
Ukraine also has a large number of political parties, many of whom are small, and join in multi-party coalitions (electoral blocks) for the purpose of participating in parliamentary elections. This concept is a complete novelty to an American, and the minor political parties in the United States (Constitution Party, Green Party, Libertarian Party, and other “micro” parties) are so different in their ideology, and often so unwilling to compromise, that they would never join in coalitions to participate in elections. In addition, our states’ ballot access laws make it very difficult for minor parties to even get on a ballot.
Is one party system superior to the other? I am not making that claim – I am only outlining a few of the differences in how elections take place. No matter what the differences are, and no matter how tired I get of seeing political advertisements, I am, at the same time, happy to see all of the advertisements, because they represent democracy in action. No matter what a person’s ideology, no matter what a person’s background or education, it is essential that as citizens of a democratic nation, that the citizens participate in the election process, as well as follow up and make sure the people they elect are truly representing them, are not corrupt, and are transparent in their dealings.
I have to be honest – though I am proud to say that I have voted in every presidential election since I turned 18 (currently at 6 presidential elections and counting), I have not voted in what we in the United States call “off year” elections. Like most Americans, I never really gave much thought to voting in “off year” elections, as it did not seem of great importance who the mayor was or who the people on the city council, or school board were. What seemed more important to me was who were my Representatives, Senators, and who was the President. Having lived in Ukraine and seen the action around this round of elections, I have determined to pay more attention to local elections when I am back in the United States.
After all, the right to elect representatives and to influence the political direction of one’s government is democracy’s indispensable political foundation. Without free elections, there is neither the possibility for citizens to express their will nor the opportunity for citizens to change their leaders, address wrongs, or protest the limitation of their rights. Elections establish the citizenry’s and the individual’s political rights. They are the ongoing representation of the consent of the governed.