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Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Ukraine politics: Another constitutional crisis


On April 2, Ukraine's president, Viktor Yushchenko, signed a decree dissolving the country's parliament, and setting fresh elections for May 27th. With parliament, dominated by Mr Yushchenko's opponents, promptly rejecting the decree, banning the government from funding the election, and ordering it to continue operating as usual, the country faces its biggest political crisis since the 'Orange Revolution' of late 2004.

The latest events are the culmination of eight months of tense relations between the president and the government of Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, Mr Yushchenko's Orange Revolution rival. Mr Yanukovych returned to government in August 2006, thanks to the Orange parties' failure to put together a coalition following the March parliamentary elections of that year. Since then, the two men have been involved in an increasingly debilitating power struggle, as Mr Yanukovych has tested the president's authority at every level.

Constitutional loose ends

At the heart of the struggle lie the constitutional changes agreed in late 2004 at the height of the Orange Revolution, as a way out of the impasse. The changes came into force at the beginning of 2006, and transferred a number of presidential prerogatives to parliament, including the right to nominate the prime minister. Crucially, however, many of the constitutional provisions have proven open to interpretation, significantly increasing the rivalry as the president and prime minister have sought to define the rules in their own terms and challenge the legality of each other's actions. In recent months the government has also intensified the pressure on Mr Yushchenko by ousting nearly all of his allies from the cabinet, encroaching on his foreign policy remit, and challenging his authority in the regions. In January, parliament passed a Law on the Cabinet of Ministers, which further limits the president's powers, including the right to nominate the foreign and defence ministers. Mr Yushchenko views the law as unconstitutional.

Mr Yushchenko's erstwhile Orange ally, Yuliya Tymoshenko, has long been urging early elections as a way out of the deadlock. She remains a popular politician, and her party, the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc (YTB) would stand to gain the most from an fresh poll. Although the popularity of Mr Yushchenko's own Our Ukraine bloc is at record lows, he appears to have been persuaded to push for new elections following the recent defection of several Our Ukraine and YTB deputies to the ruling coalition, which is led by Mr Yanukovych's Party of Regions (PoR). As many as 11 are said to have defected, giving the coalition control of around 260 legislators in the 450-seat chamber—dangerously near to the 300 constitutional majority that would allow the government to overturn presidential vetoes and change the constitution. Mr Yushchenko has justified the dissolution of parliament by saying that the government acted unconstitutionally by accepting individual deputies into its ranks. He argues that the constitution provides for coalitions to be composed of factions, rather than individuals.

Calculations of self-interest

Mr Yushchenko's action has, unsurprisingly, been welcomed by Ms Tymoshenko. The PoR has opposed it. Although the PoR would likely win a new election, it already enjoys a more than comfortable position in parliament, and has little incentive to take on the risk of another vote. The PoR's main coalition partner, the Socialist Party, is also loath to risk its position and in particular, that of its leader, Oleksandr Moroz, as parliamentary speaker. The smallest party in the coalition, the Communists, would also be likely to lose seats in an early election.

The latest stand-off is unlikely to be resolved quickly. Although the government will challenge Mr Yushchenko's decree on dissolving parliament at the Constitutional Court—and faces a good chance of success, given that the grounds for dissolution appear far from solid—a ruling will take time. In the meantime, there is at least the possibility of dialogue: on April 3rd, Mr Yanukovych urged Mr Yushchenko to return to the negotiating table to "avoid the worst". However, such talks would also likely be protracted, and unproductive, given the stakes involved. Few had believed that the famously indecisive Mr Yushchenko would push things this far, but now that he has, he risks being virtually eclipsed if he climbs down—further defections from his camp could well follow.

It is unclear what Mr Yushchenko might demand in return for backing down on his dissolution threat, but clearly the issues at the forefront of the president's concerns are the poaching of his supporters and the erosion of his constitutional powers: before the latest developments, Mr Yushchenko had already applied to the Constitutional Court over the legality both of the original constitutional changes agreed in 2004, and of the more recent Law on the Cabinet of Ministers. He has also called for a national referendum to be held on the constitutional reform. Mr Yanukovych, for his part, has threatened to attempt to force early presidential elections should Mr Yushchenko not relent, although this would not be an easy thing to do: parliament would need to impeach the president, on the grounds that he had committed a "state treason or other crime", and the final resolution would need to be supported by three-quarters of the deputies in parliament, after review by both the Supreme Court and the Constitutional Court. The PoR will also be aware that the popular Ms Tymoshenko would be a very strong contender for the presidency. With the next scheduled presidential contest in 2009 firmly in her sights, Ms Tymoshenko has recently been busy building her international image with a high-profile trip to the US.

Spilling onto the streets

If the crisis is indeed drawn out, the risk of it escalating to the levels seen during the Orange Revolution would increase. The key players—Messrs Yanukovych, Yushchenko and Ms Tymoshenko—have already mobilised their supporters onto the streets in Kiev. In a sign of how tense the situation already is, Defence Minister Anatoly Gritsenko, who is one of only two Yushchenko allies left in the cabinet, has seen fit to state that the country's armed forces would follow the president's orders, while the EU and Russia have expressed their concern. But although the PoR in particular has sufficient financial resources to mobilise considerable support, the population in general, disenchanted with the performance of the country's politicians since the Orange Revolution, appears far from the level of spontaneous political engagement seen then. And while brinkmanship may tempt both sides to talk up the danger of re-opening the ethnic and regional fault-lines that appeared during the Orange Revolution, an awareness of the risks should at the least be an inducement to limit the dispute to the legislative arena.

Although early elections are far from certain, they would in any case be unlikely to resolve Ukraine's political difficulties. Although the parliamentary configuration would certainly change, the fundamental problem would remain: the need for a decision on what kind of political system the country should have —parliamentary, mixed parliamentary/presidential, or presidential—and for the constitution to unambiguously delineate the authority of the respective branches of power accordingly.

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