Norms and standards of ethical behavior may be considered as an attribute of political culture in decision-making, communication with voters, and standardized procedures, which can be used to prevent corruption and disintegration in the work of representative authorities. Parliamentary ethics is a high-profile problem and an important factor of the reform of Ukraine’s Verkhovna Rada, whereas ethical components of activities of local elected officials are paid less attention by the public. However, ethical standards and activity procedures at the level of community representation are no less important, especially in terms of decentralization and the growing role of local self-governments in the community life.
The law “On the Status of Deputies of Local Councils” regulates ethical norms of activities of local elected officials, and introduces the practice of approval of codes of ethical conduct of local self-governments. But is it enough? How are ethical norms transformed into real political culture of local elected officials and how are various challenges in their workperceived at the local level?
A study by the Ukrainian Center for Independent Political Research answers these and other questions. Participants in the study shared their vision of norms of ethical behavior of local elected officials. A relevant discussion was launched in July 2016, in partnership with civil society representatives, journalists, members of regional and local councils,public servants, political experts, and others. The study showed that opinion leaders have an explicit request for ethical behavior and constructive work of local elected officials, which is not always perceived by the public. The study results indicated that despite some negative phenomena,a tradition of paternalism is gradually dying in Ukraine, and a culture of political participation, typical for developed democracies, is being created.
The study participants defined morality as a form of civic consciousness, a “way of action in a certain situation”. According to most of them, the morality of local elected officials directly depends upon that of society.
The principles of ethical conduct of local elected officials are:
Manifestations of unethical behavior that makes the work of local councils ineffective include attempts to humiliate opponents, disrespect for the audience; personal attacks, intolerance to physical defects; consumption of alcoholic beverages during working hours; refusal to provide comments to journalists; constant fights, attempts to decide disputes by fists; disputes instead of decision-making; unsubstantiated allegations of corruption; wearing of very expensive clothes; concealment of illegal distribution of land parcels; shadow enrichment; and preference to personal interests.
The payment of work is a controversial issue as well. Potential corruption poses a risk because the payment of work of local elected officials has been mentioned repeatedly and in different contexts. In particular, the absence of the remuneration of local elected officials creates corruption risks and raises the issue of motivation of those willing to work for free and invest their own money in parliamentary activities. The payment of work of local elected officials is also a reason for the public to hold them accountable for the quality of their work.
At the same time, compliance of politicians with ethical standards is not always a priority for voters. Some of them may prioritize efficiency and the ability to work for the voters’ interests, whereas others– political views and membership of certain political parties. The study participants stressed that although slogans of some political parties, for example, the Radical Party of Oleh Lyashko, were not ethical, such parties received the support of voters.
Local elected officials argued that electoral expectations are often unrealistic and moretypical for a paternalistic society. One participantsaid: “Judging by numerous meetings,voters expect local elected officials to be guyswith a wrench who do not sleep, do not eat, and do not earn money. These guys must always be ready to repair the toilet and have a light bulb in their mouth.” Also, some citizens perceive local elected officials, especially during elections,as Santa Clauses who must bestow them with material values.
The problem of unpunished violations of laws by local elected officials and political parties is a common theme ofdiscussion on parliamentary ethics of local councils. The current state of affairs could be described as “collective irresponsibility”. Hence, it is expedient to formalize rules of ethical conduct for local parliamentarians only if clear sanctions, including criminal ones, for their violation are legally entrenched. The principle of inevitability of punishment is the primary mechanism that would make lawmakers comply with ethical standards.
The study participants emphasizedthe significant role of the public and the media in monitoring compliance with the rules of ethical conduct by local officials as such practice exists in the country. Transparency of voting has increased over recently,andprocedures for such control have considerably simplified. Different voting for resolutions of similar content could be a sign of corruption or undeclared conflict of interests.
In turn, local deputies paid attention to biased attitude towards them on the part of journalists and the public. According to them, prior to elections, they are perceived asfriends and public activists, whereas after elections,they are treated as corrupt officials and have to justify themselves for honestly earned money. They say that journalists distort information, trying to find corruption even where there was none.
The problem of the “distortion of information” to slander opponents does exist. Journalists should not blame lawmakers of corruption before they receive explanationsfor the origin of their declared assets. The divulgence of information on corruption also poses a problem because the media are often a party to the conflict in the political process and are ready to publish the results of the investigation only if they could be used as compromising materials.
Although the majority of the respondents doubted the effectiveness of the code of ethics as a tool that would make local elected officialsobserve the standards of conduct, they mainly spoke in favor of its development and adoption. Some participants believed that the availability of legally establishednormscouldbe the first step towards the setting of rules because when the rules are written, they are not so blatantly violated. The fact that the study participants stressed the need to develop the code with the involvement of all lawmakers so that to give each of them the opportunity to submit proposals indicates that culture of political participation is being createdin Ukraine.
A discussion of accountability to voters proved to be the clearest trend towards creating culture of political participation. Despite the understanding of the need for accountability to the electorate as an element of participatory democracy, deputies’ reports are dull for the publicas they are formal and presented formally. Peopleare oftenforced to come to hear deputies’ reports. The respondents said that this is a Soviet practice that needs to be dropped.
The search continues for new ways of reporting on the work of elected officials to voters, including an interactive format, so that to enable them to ask questions and make remarks. This communication couldtake place in person during meetings with small groups of voters,or on social networks as many lawmakers have learned to use the Internet in communication with citizens.Also, reports on the Internet could become a way forinteraction with the young audience that traditionally is not active.
Another indicator of citizens’ desire to take part in the political process is the need for a speedy passage of a law on lobbying as a means tomake changes. It is recommended that the law set relevant procedures and that lobbying experts offer their services in a transparent manner.
Despite the existing gender stereotypes, theparticipation of women in power is increasingalong with their role in society in general. At the same time,attitude to gender quotas introduced at the local level remains predominantly negative. Specifically, even those participants who supported the gender quotas noted that the issue of equal participation could not be solved through quotas alone. In their viewpoint, political parties have to systematically work on the involvement and development of women and youth so that they have the opportunity to make a political career. They argued that political parties in Ukraine are interested to put women on their lists because it is a today’s requirement. None of the study participants spoke out against the involvement of women in politics. Conversely, representatives of political partiescomplained about the low political participation of women, most of whomfulfil their potential in the family.
The study results clearly indicate that the culture of political participation is being gradually created in Ukraine, which is manifested in openness for dialogue and cooperation with civil society. In turn, civil society is ready to take part in political processes through lobbying and introducing procedures of control of politicians. Although this vision of the policy is not shared by all Ukrainians and mechanisms of effective control and communication are just being developed, the Ukrainian public is not against such relations with authorities.
By Yulia Kazdobina,
Ukrainian Center for Independent Political Research
8 December 2016