Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko has suffered a crashing defeat over his plan to change the constitution. Not only has it become clear that Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko will not support his plan to boost presidential powers, but she has sided with his eternal opponents, the Party of Regions (PRU), in order to change the constitution in the opposite direction. Tymoshenko has declared her support for a parliamentary republic in which the president would perform mainly representational functions. At the same time, the Constitutional Court (CC) has forbidden Yushchenko to amend the constitution through a referendum
Ever since his election as president in December 2004, Yushchenko has been unhappy with the constitutional reform of 2004-2006 which strengthened parliament and the Cabinet of Ministers at the expense of the president. The reform has been viewed in his camp as a time bomb planted by the corrupt old elite, who were defeated in 2004, in order to prevent Yushchenko from reforming. Yushchenko wanted to restore the strong presidential authority that his predecessor Leonid Kuchma had wielded. Tymoshenko backed him on this, while the PRU, since its leader Viktor Yanukovych was defeated by Yushchenko in 2004, has been in favor of further weakening the presidential authority.
Yushchenko’s plan has been to change the constitution by bypassing parliament through a popular referendum, as he has never commanded the two-thirds parliamentary majority that is needed to amend the constitution. At the end of 2007 Yushchenko set up the National Constitutional Council to draft amendments to the constitution that would reverse the constitutional reform. The Council initially included representatives of all the major parties, but the PRU withdrew from it in early 2008 and Tymoshenko’s representatives have been little more than passive observers
Instead, the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc (BYT) agreed with the PRU to set up a commission in parliament to draft constitutional amendments separately from the presidential team. Yushchenko sensed betrayal (see EDM, April 16). Tymoshenko justified his fears, addressing the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, a pan-European human rights watchdog, on April 16. She said that she was in favor of transforming Ukraine into a parliamentary republic, the dominant form of government in the European Union.
“We must . . . make Ukraine a traditional parliamentary republic in line with European experience,” she said. “A parliamentary republic–I don’t need to explain this to you–has significant advantages over any strong and monopolized system of government.” Tymoshenko detailed her design of a parliamentary republic for Ukraine, speaking in a TV interview on April 20. She said that the president should still be elected in a nationwide poll, but his role in politics should be diminished. “It will be like in Germany. There is the chancellor, and there is order,” she said.
Tymoshenko expressed the hope that within the next several weeks parliament would give preliminary approval to constitutional amendments providing for transition to a parliamentary republic. She stressed that Ukraine needed those amendments “more than any other reform,” Unlike Yushchenko, Tymoshenko is confident that her amendments will be backed in parliament, as BYT and the PRU together control more than two-thirds of the seats there.
In contrast, Yushchenko’s reform design has been buried by the CC. Several months ago Yushchenko requested the CC to come up with a ruling on whether the constitution could be changed through a referendum, and on April 18 the CC said a decisive “no.” CC Chief Judge Andry Stryzhak explained that the president should first submit draft constitutional amendments to parliament, which will decide whether to forward them to the CC to determine their legality. If the CC delivers a positive verdict, parliament should adopt a respective bill by 300 votes, corresponding to two-thirds of its members. Only after that could the bill be approved by a referendum, Stryzhak said.
BYT hailed the CC ruling. Tymoshenko did not rule out holding an early parliamentary election after the constitution has been amended, which should be possible by the end of 2008. This probably means that Tymoshenko no longer believes in the viability of People’s Self-Defense bloc (NUNS), the ruling coalition with Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine. NUNS chairman Vyacheslav Kyrylenko denounced Tymoshenko’s intention to build a parliamentary republic or, as he put it, “deprive the president of his authority and pass it to parliamentary caucuses and a certain chancellor who will be appointed by those caucuses”.
Kyrylenko went as far as to claim that Tymoshenko’s constitutional design “poses a real threat to the territorial integrity and independence of Ukraine,” and he warned the BYT against negotiating with the PRU behind NUNS’s back. Not everybody in NUNS shares this opinion, however. Oles Dony, a member of People’s Self-Defense (NS), which is Our Ukraine’s junior partner in NUNS, said that the majority of NS members support the plans of the BYT and the PRU to set up a commission in parliament in order to amend the constitution. Yushchenko is losing supporters in his own party (Channel 5, April 16; UNIAN, April 18; Zerkalo nedeli, April 19; ICTV, April 20; RBK-Ukraine, April 21).