The past fifty years have seen an important trend towards decentralization worldwide. As a result, elected subnational governments now exist in nearly every country and are in charge of delivering a substantial share of total public expenditure – about a quarter on global average. Many rationales have been used to justify this transfer of authority and resources from higher to lower government tiers. A recurring argument revolves around the idea that decentralization “brings government closer to the people” by enlarging the scope of the local political space, empowering elected representatives who are known by the population and making policies better tailored to local contexts.
Decentralization and political participation: the importance of the context
Does devolving more powers to subnational governments indeed increase citizens’ sense of proximity with politics and affect how they relate to government more generally? Could decentralization provide a lever to curb political alienation and revitalize citizens’ political agency, support and participation? A recent study by Camille Barras, Decentralization and political participation: Evidence from Ukraine, sheds light on these broader questions by looking specifically at whether decentralization influences political participation in local elections in the context of Ukraine. Previous research on this question (two examples of which can be found here and here) has mainly focused on Western (or WEIRD) countries and pointed to the existence of a positive relationship. But less is known about other contexts, and the scarce existing evidence is ambivalent as to the direction of the relationship.
The main argument for the study goes as follows. From a rational choice perspective, larger subnational autonomy and a wider scope of policy responsibilities devolved to subnational governments expand the relative importance of local politics and the stakes of local elections. This, in turn, is likely to incentivize citizens to turn out at the polls. Yet it is thinkable that the positive effect of decentralization on voter turnout does not hold true in all contexts. In places where politics are marked by high corruption or weak accountability, negative attitudes toward politics could take precedence and obliterate this effect. The influence of informal networks, in particular the strong intertwining of economic interests and politics, may also undermine citizens’ voice and agency with regard to local governance, even in a decentralized setting. Lastly, decentralization reforms are known to potentially induce a deterioration in the quality of public services under some circumstances, especially in contexts little conducive to accountability – which can fuel citizens’ disillusionment with their local governments and ultimately lead to political disaffection and abstention.
The case of Ukrainian cities: an asymmetric decentralization system
Ukraine provides an interesting case to investigate the relationship between decentralization and local political participation. A country with a competitive authoritarian regime and affected by weak accountability and widespread corruption during the period studied, it widely diverges from other contexts examined so far. Crucially for the research design and strategy, an asymmetric decentralization system used to exist until recently. As a legacy of the Soviet times – and in common with several countries of the former Soviet space – Ukrainian cities could belong to different administrative categories and be granted the same status as either districts (rayons) or villages.
Cities of regional significance (CRS) started progressively acquiring more authority compared to cities of district significance (CDS) from the early 2000s onward, in particular since the promulgation of the 2001 Budget Code. Concretely, this asymmetry translated into a wider scope of budget delivery responsibilities granted to CRS in key policy areas including education, health and social welfare (with a nearly five-fold total budget), but also into more freely disposable revenue and thus financial independence due to a larger share of the personal income tax (PIT) transferred back to CRS than to CDS. CRS moreover held stronger appointment and dismissal authority over executive staff, as well as higher autonomy in preparing and negotiating budgets due to a different institutional set-up. In short, CRS wielded considerably more powers than CDS, so that they have been described as the only local government units “to enjoy some genuine self-government” in Ukraine (Romanova & Umland, 2019). Importantly, this difference between CRS and CDS was strong and lasting enough to have possibly unfolded effects, until a reform completed in 2020 abolished this distinction and harmonized the degree of decentralization across cities.
To analyze whether these two types of cities differed in terms of voter turnout in local elections, an original dataset on Ukrainian cities was built by pulling together local electoral data, data on local budgets and intergovernmental finances, geospatial and remote sensing data (geocoordinates and night-time light) as well as various official and census indicators related to the economic structure, linguistic diversity, electoral competitiveness and candidates’ profiles. This allows for comparing cities on characteristics that influence both the treatment (decentralization) and the outcome (voter turnout) and assume conditional exogeneity to estimate the causal effect. The main analysis draws on both matching and regression models. In a second step, the analysis is replicated using survey data.
Increased electoral participation but lower perceived performance of local governments
The findings converge on a significant and positive effect of decentralization on political participation. In the more autonomous cities (CRS), voter turnout in local elections is higher by more than four percentage points compared to other cities. Survey data corroborate this positive relationship. In other words, the rational-choice based prediction that decentralization leads to higher local political participation appears to hold true in the context of a new democracy like Ukraine.
The study also assesses the plausibility of different potential causal pathways using a mixed methods approach. While evidence hints that the effect might be especially driven by the degree of fiscal autonomy and that citizens tend to be aware of the extent of their local government’s responsibilities, it also implies that other mechanisms could be at play simultaneously. This includes voter mobilization through more party or program-oriented electoral campaigns in CRS. Interestingly, perceived performance of local governments seems lower in CRS, thereby echoing previous evidence about negative outcomes of decentralization. Combined with the main finding, this suggests that voter turnout is heightened by decentralization even when subjective performance worsens. One possible interpretation is that the higher voter turnout in CRS is explained by protest vote; alternatively, the devolution of substantial financial resources to CRS could make citizens more demanding.
Wider relevance of the research findings
This research contributes to scholarship on decentralization by extending the external validity of previous studies. According to the findings, a more accentuated devolution of powers, resources and autonomy to subnational governments indeed raises citizens’ participation in local elections also outside more established democracies, namely in a hybrid regime with high levels in corruption and political alienation. This is of relevance to the large number of countries that share similar background characteristics with Ukraine and where decentralization reforms were or will be implemented.
If an immediate implication of wider political participation in local elections is greater inclusiveness of local governance, the study findings also call for caution in interpreting this as evidence of rejuvenated enthusiasm for politics. To the contrary, it could be ill-advised to extrapolate the positive effect of decentralization on participation to further outcomes. As suggested by the lower perception of local government performance in more autonomous cities, increased political participation may not automatically translate into greater political legitimacy or a narrower state-society gap.
This blog was prepared by Camille Barras, a Ph.D. candidate in Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge. The working paper accompanying this blog, Decentralization and political participation: Evidence from Ukraine, was selected as the winner of LPSA’s Outstanding Decentralization Paper Award for Europe and Central Asia (ECA Region) in November 2022.