Grand Coalition Talks Collapse in Ukraine

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 111

Party of Regions (PRU) leader Viktor Yanukovych (L) and Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko

The talks on forming a coalition between Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and Party of Regions (PRU) leader Viktor Yanukovych have failed due to mutual distrust. Electing the next president in parliament was among the main conditions for a grand coalition that would have permitted Tymoshenko to remain as prime minister after Yanukovych’s election as the next president by parliament. This would have initiated the start of Ukraine’s transition to parliamentary rule (EDM, June 3). As the talks failed, until after the popular presidential election scheduled for January 2010, Ukraine will remain an unstable and mixed parliamentary-presidential republic where the line between the authorities of president and prime minister are blurred.

Everything was in place for forming a new coalition by June 5, including the draft of a new constitution which had been published in the media and widely discussed. However, on June 7 Yanukovych unexpectedly announced on TV that the talks had failed. The main reason, he said, was that he could not agree to elect the president in parliament, since this would "make society doubtful about the transparency of our actions." Yanukovych also said that a new coalition would have insufficient time to appoint a new government and adopt a fresh constitution (Inter TV, June 7).

Tymoshenko reacted immediately with an improvised televised address to the nation. She stated that the PRU unilaterally withdrew from the coalition talks, although "the four political forces – the PRU, the parliamentary speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn bloc, the BYT (Tymoshenko bloc) and the majority of Our Ukraine agreed to unite for the sake of the people," at a time of severe economic crisis. She said that this left no alternative to her standing for the presidency in a popular election. Tymoshenko said that her party was against both electing the president in parliament and extending the current parliamentary term from 2012 till 2014 – although it is widely known that the two conditions for a grand coalition had been agreed between her and Yanukovych (ICTV, June 7).

Yanukovych apparently decided that it was safer to run in a popular election, which the opinion polls indicated that he might win, rather than relying on an election in parliament of a coalition partner that had been his long-standing opponent. Moreover, mutual distrust was fueled by the lack of unity among the BYT ranks regarding the coalition conditions. The nationalist wing was firmly against extending the parliamentary term, and Tymoshenko reportedly assured them that the next parliamentary election will be held in 2012 (Ukrainska Pravda, June 8). This probably raised doubts within Yanukovych’s camp as to whether the rest of the agreements would be adhered to.

Yanukovych apparently wanted more guarantees of his election victory. Tymoshenko claimed in her address to the nation that he insisted on raising the minimum age requirement for presidential candidates from 35 to 50. This would automatically exclude from the race both Tymoshenko and the third most popular candidate, the liberal economist Arseny Yatsenyuk. Tymoshenko said she could not accept such an "exotic" precedent (ICTV, June 7).

Apparently both Tymoshenko and Yanukovych do not rule out resuming coalition talks after the presidential election. However, several points are already clear: Ukraine will experience a popular presidential election once again, most likely in January 2010 (parliament has yet to schedule the exact date); both Yanukovych and Tymoshenko will stand; and there will be no transition to parliamentary rule -at least in the short to medium term, since no matter who is elected, he or she is likely to try to boost presidential power at parliament’s expense. This trend has been observed in Ukraine on several occasions in the past.

In the interim, Ukraine will be steered by an exceptionally weak government chaired by Tymoshenko. The amorphous coalition that backs her, consisting of BYT, Lytvyn’s bloc and the majority of Our Ukraine, controls significantly less than half of the seats in parliament. In crucial votes, it has to seek support from either the communists or the PRU. Furthermore, the number of vacant positions in the government is growing, which raises doubts about its ability to steer Ukraine out of the present crisis.

On June 5, parliament dismissed Defense Minister Yury Yekhanurov. The motion was backed by 363 votes in the 450-seat body. The vote demonstrated how little influence the weakened President Viktor Yushchenko retains over parliament. Tymoshenko had insisted on Yekhanurov’s dismissal. On May 20 she accused Yekhanurov of corruption, referring to the results of investigations alleging that ministerial officials were involved in illegal operations involving land and fuel. Tymoshenko asked Yushchenko to dismiss Yekhanurov but he refused, insisting that Yekhanurov had not violated any laws (UNIAN, May 20). With Yekhanurov’s departure, Tymoshenko’s cabinet remains without a defense minister, finance minister and foreign minister. Justice Minister Mykola Onishchuk, another ally of Yushchenko’s, also might be vulnerable as the BYT has long insisted on his dismissal.