Ukraine’s parliament has scheduled the next presidential election for October 25, 2009, three months earlier than expected. President Viktor Yushchenko went further, signaling his readiness to step down sooner if an early parliamentary election were held simultaneously. He sided with the opposition Party of Regions (PRU) which has been calling for early elections for several months in order to free the Prime Minister’s post for its leader Viktor Yanukovych. Naturally this is opposed by the current Premier, Yulia Tymoshenko.
In his annual state-of-the-nation address on March 31,Yushchenko presented his constitutional reform plan to parliament, which proved unpopular. The main aim was to end the incessant conflicts between the presidency and the parliament by removing the overlaps in their respective remits. In particular, Yushchenko proposed the ministers of defense and foreign affairs must not be presidentially appointed, nor should he interfere in the cabinet’s economic policies. He would however, retain control over national security and increase his influence on parliament by securing the right to disband it at his discretion.
The main change Yushchenko proposed was the introduction of a bicameral parliament to replace the current unicameral chamber. The upper chamber would serve as both the body representing the regions -as each region would elect three senators- and mitigate conflict between the president and the lower chamber. However, Yushchenko is too politically weakened, and his draft constitution has been rejected by his rivals. Several of them claimed that Yushchenko was not driven by concerns over political stability, but his desire to retain power in some form after the forthcoming presidential election -which he is widely expected to lose- prompting an attempt to change the constitution, and make former presidents life-time senators.
Tymoshenko is his most outspoken critic, saying that the draft constitution is designed "to employ one person," the incumbent president (Ukraina TV, April 3). The Parliamentary Speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn, an ally of Tymoshenko’s, warned that the senate would be full of "oligarchs." Former Speaker Arseny Yatsenyuk, currently one of the most popular presidential hopefuls, predicted that an upper chamber would complicate the legislative process. Even the PRU, which has always favored strengthening the regional element within the government, has not been enthusiastic, saying that Yushchenko’s idea is too late (Ukrainska Pravda, March 31).
Yushchenko has no popular support and few allies, leaving his reform plan weak from the outset. However, his announcement had one rather unexpected consequence. Parliament viewed it as an indication of Yushchenko’s readiness to disband it (which has been facing this threat since last June when the majority coalition ceased to exist), and consequently it voted to remove the threat. By an overwhelming majority -401 votes in the 450-seat body- parliament scheduled the next presidential election for October 25, 2009; although the constitution that came into effect in 2006 clearly points to the last Sunday at the end of the fifth year of the incumbent’s term -January 17, 2010 in Yushchenko’s case (Channel 5, April 1).
Parliamentarians did not conceal that this was delayed to prevent any premature dissolution of parliament, since the president cannot currently dissolve it within six months of the end of his term. However, the legal argument presented by Tymoshenko’s allies who had drafted the motion to support an early election, appears suspect. They suggested that since the president was first elected on the basis of the previous constitution -which stipulated that the presidential election should be held in October- this should be carried out in accordance with the pre-2006 constitution.
Yushchenko disputed parliament’s decision in the Constitutional Court, but it is unclear how much time the court might take to deliver a verdict; meanwhile, the electoral body has started preparations for a presidential election on October 25 (ICTV, April 8). This prompted Yushchenko to seek support from the PRU. He surrendered to their demand to hold simultaneous early presidential and parliamentary elections, saying he would agree to a presidential election even earlier than October 25 if it were held alongside an early parliamentary poll (UNIAN, April 3). Yanukovych and Yatsenyuk supported Yushchenko (Inter TV, April 5), but Tymoshenko rejected his initiative, warning that early elections would destabilize Ukraine and exacerbate the economic crisis (Ukraina TV, April 3).
Tymoshenko might lose early elections, partly as an electoral protest over her handling of the current economic crisis. However, she will probably be spared the need of campaigning in early parliamentary elections, despite the support that her main rivals voiced for them. In order to call new elections the current parliament should first be disbanded, but Yushchenko’s position is too vulnerable and parliament appears unlikely to accept any compromise. The March 31 vote in favor of an early presidential election showed that its instinct for self-preservation is very strong.