Ukraine might shortly become a parliamentary republic if a constitutional reform plan is agreed. This is a joint plan by Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and Viktor Yanukovych, the leader of the Party of Regions (PRU) which has been the largest opposition force. The plan is opposed by President Viktor Yushchenko. According to its details, the next president would be elected in parliament, which means that the popular presidential election expected in January 2010 might not occur. The PRU would form a ruling coalition and a cabinet jointly with Tymoshenko’s bloc (BYT).
Coalition talks have been continuing between the PRU and the BYT for more than one year. Since Tymoshenko and Yanukovych have been portrayed as bitter opponents for almost a decade, it was feared that the electoral supporters of the two parties will not welcome the proposed alliance. For this reason, the talks were conducted secretly and the two parties’ representatives often denied their existence. A law on the cabinet resulted from these talks, which curtailed Yushchenko’s authority and was passed by the votes of the two parties in parliament in September 2008. Yushchenko’s team left Tymoshenko’s coalition in protest, forcing Tymoshenko to form a new coalition by the end of 2008, whose existence has not been recognized by either Yushchenko or the PRU.
Yanukovych’s reluctance to accept the election of the president within parliament was reportedly the main stumbling block. The first indication that the PRU and the BYT might soon come to a final agreement appeared towards the end of May, when the PRU withdrew its demands for Tymoshenko to resign and Yanukovych admitted in a televised interview that talks with the BYT had proceeded without interruption (Inter TV, May 24). On June 1, several Ukrainian newspapers quoted their sources within both camps as saying that Yanukovych and Tymoshenko at their meetings on May 30-31 agreed on a plan to change the constitution and form an alliance (Segodnya, Ukrainska Pravda, Ekonomicheskie Izvestia, June 1).
On June 2 Ukrainska Pravda published the details of the agreement:
1. The constitution will be changed to allow the president to be elected in parliament, and this could be Yanukovych (his election should be a formality as the PRU and BYT jointly control more than two-thirds of the parliament). 2. Presidential powers will be curtailed, but he will retain control over the Siloviki. 3. Tymoshenko will carry on as prime minister presiding over a cabinet consisting of representatives of the BYT, the PRU and possibly several more parties 4. The local self-government system will be reformed, enabling regional governors to be elected locally. 5. The party scoring the largest number of votes in a parliamentary election will control 226 seats in parliament, i.e. an overall majority. 6. The next parliamentary election will be held in 2014 rather than 2012 – this should convince hesitating deputies to support constitutional reform as they will be guaranteed two more years in parliament (Ukrainska Pravda, June 2).
It is possible that the alliance will not be formalized until after the constitution has been amended. Only then will the two parties form a new cabinet. This way Yanukovych and Tymoshenko might try to prevent mass disillusionment among the electorate and any harsh reaction from Yushchenko who has been a bitter opponent of parliamentary democracy (Kommersant-Ukraine, June 2). Yushchenko has firmly rejected the new coalition plan. During a visit to the Vatican, he said that a PRU-BYT coalition would be tantamount to a constitutional coup. Yushchenko opined that the planned constitutional reform would be against democratic and European values as the country, according to Yushchenko, will be de facto divided between Yanukovych and Tymoshenko (president.gov.ua, June 1).
The reaction of the former parliamentary speaker Arseny Yatsenyuk, a young liberal who is regarded by many as a potentially strong rival for both Tymoshenko and Yanukovych in a popular presidential election, has been no less harsh. He repeated Yushchenko’s thesis concerning Ukraine’s division between the duo, and called the plan to elect the president in parliament and postpone parliamentary elections "African democracy" (www.liga.net, June 1). Several recent opinion polls have shown that Yatsenyuk might overtake Tymoshenko as the second most popular presidential candidate after Yanukovych. If the PRU-BYT union succeeds in changing the constitution, Yatsenyuk will have no chance of becoming president.
Constitutional reform requires approval by two-thirds of the deputies in the unicameral parliament. The BYT and the PRU jointly control more than that, suggesting that their alliance will not have to ask for either Yushchenko’s or Yatsenyuk’s approval in order to change the constitution. However, the process of amending the constitution is potentially long and complicated. It requires the approval of amendments twice by two sessions of parliament and a positive verdict from the constitutional court in the interim. This might give Yushchenko time to derail the BYT-PRU plan by either disbanding parliament or resigning and thereby automatically launching the mechanism for an early presidential election -denying his rivals sufficient opportunity to pursue constitutional reform.