Voters wearing protective face masks stand in front of an information board outside a polling station during local elections…
Voters wearing protective face masks stand in front of an information board outside a polling station during local elections amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Kyiv, Ukraine, Oct. 25, 2020.

Voters across Ukraine are casting ballots in local elections being held under a new Electoral Code that decentralizes power from Kyiv to local governing bodies. 

The polls are considered the most consequential local elections in Ukraine's modern history, with all local officials up for replacement and the new local governments being granted expanded financial and political independence from the central government. 

The reforms have been lauded as a significant step away from the top-down administration the country inherited from the Soviet Union that has remained largely unchanged over three decades of independence. 

The October 25 vote has also been seen as an important test for President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who was elected in a landslide in early 2019, and his Servant of the People party. 

Recent public opinion polls show that about 70 percent of Ukrainians believe the country is headed in the wrong direction, while Zelenskiy's personal approval rating has dipped below 50 percent. 

According to a poll by the Rating Group polling agency, Servant of the People —a populist party that has no defined program or ideology — is expected to get only about 17 percent of the overall vote on October 25, down from the 54 percent it received in snap parliamentary elections in July 2019. 

The incumbent mayors of the major cities holding elections — Kyiv, Kharkiv, Odesa, Dnipro, and Lviv — are expected to retain their seats, although some races could go to a second round of voting. None of these incumbents is a member of Servant of the People, and all of them oppose Zelenskiy. 

More than 1,400 newly defined local communities will choose city and regional council members, as well as heads of rural settlements and city mayors. The new election laws also mandate that 40 percent of local council seats go to women. 

In all, some 370 mayors, more than 1,000 town and settlement heads, and about 2,000 town, city, and regional councils will be determined. 

Some 360 registered parties are participating in at least one of the elections. 

Voting will not be held in the Black Sea region of Crimea, which was annexed by Russia in 2014, and in parts of the eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions where Russian-backed separatist formations are fighting against Kyiv. 

In addition, Zelenskiy has ordered that a nonbinding poll comprising five questions be conducted in parallel with the voting. The questions have not been announced in advance, and voter participation in the survey will be voluntary. Zelenskiy said in a video posted on his official website that voters will also be asked to submit questions for future polls. 

The voting comes as Ukraine — like many European countries — is experiencing a sharp uptick in new coronavirus infections. The country set a single-day record for new infections on October 23, with 7,517 cases recorded. That broke the record of 7,053 set the day before. 

Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko announced on October 24 that he had tested positive for the virus and that he was immediately self-isolating. 

Zelenskiy's cabinet last year decided to strip Klitschko of his powers at the head of the capital city's state administration, which are a separate position from the post of mayor, ratcheting up a power struggle between the former world boxing champion and the president. 

The president's office accused Klitschko, who has served as mayor of Kyiv since 2014, of enabling graft and of not controlling the Kyiv city council. 

Klitschko has denied the allegations and in response has asked the National Anti-Corruption Bureau to investigate the allegations. Klitschko is expected to easily win the mayoral race for Kyiv. 

In all, Ukraine has recorded more than 330,000 coronavirus infections and more than 6,100 deaths.