Ukraine’s most popular opposition politician, former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, is pushing for a referendum to change the constitution. She wants the vote to be held simultaneously with the early parliamentary election on September 30. President Viktor Yushchenko also wants a referendum, but he believes it should be held later. When the Central Electoral Commission (CEC) refused to consider the signatures of Ukrainians that the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc (BYuT) had collected in favor of the referendum, Tymoshenko appealed in court to overturn the CEC’s ruling. She also accused Yushchenko’s team of conspiring against her referendum with the Party of Regions, which is led by her arch-rival, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych.
Yushchenko and Tymoshenko have been in favor of changing the constitution ever since the 2004 presidential election, which brought Yushchenko to power. They are against the constitutional amendments adopted by parliament on December 8, 2004, that shifted the balance of powers in favor of parliament and weakened the president. Many in Yushchenko’s team believe the amendments were designed by Yushchenko’s opponents and were aimed specifically against him. Yushchenko’s party had to accept them in 2004 in return for an additional round of the controversial presidential election, in which Yushchenko ultimately emerged the winner.
The flaws of the amended constitution became evident after August 2006, when Yushchenko grudgingly endorsed parliament’s choice for prime minister, Yanukovych, his opponent in the presidential vote. For the first time under the new constitution, Ukraine was to be governed by a president and a prime minister from rival camps. Since then, each of the two has been interpreting weak points in the constitution in his favor and accusing the opponent of violating the constitution. This was one of the main causes of the political crisis in May 2007 that prompted Yushchenko to call an early election.
Yushchenko and Tymoshenko have decided to go further than merely reversing the 2004 constitutional reform. They want an entirely new text of the constitution to be approved by a referendum in order to transform Ukraine from the current semi-presidential system into a presidential republic. As Tymoshenko put it in a recent interview with Silski visti, “The president should simultaneously perform the prime minister’s functions, which is the usual way in presidential republics.”
Tymoshenko believes the referendum has to be held on September 30, because she wants to kill two birds with one stone. First, Tymoshenko’s control over the media is very limited, but television carries reports about her referendum campaign almost every day, thereby raising the BYuT’s profile for the parliamentary election. Second, by telling ordinary Ukrainians that they can change the constitution by voting in the referendum, Tymoshenko earns their sympathies, which may lead her to victory in the next presidential campaign. A recent poll by the All-Ukrainian Sociology Service has revealed that 20% of Ukrainians are ready to vote for Tymoshenko in the presidential election in 2009. Only Yanukovych is more popular, with 29.8%, while Yushchenko trails with only 12.9%.
The BYuT said that it has collected 200,000 signatures across the country in favor of a constitutional referendum on September 30. However, on August 17 the CEC refused to give the formal go-ahead to the collection of signatures. Tymoshenko appeared on TV screens accusing Yanukovych and Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine party of conspiring against the referendum, as representatives of those parties on the CEC had voted against the collection of signatures.
Yushchenko and CEC chairman Volodymyr Shapoval, however, explained that a referendum would be legally impossible on September 30, as the law provides for three months for referendum preparation after it is formally announced. This did not stop Tymoshenko from suing the CEC on August 20.
Yushchenko has made it clear that he fully supports the idea of a referendum to approve a new constitution. This would put an end to the troublesome constitutional reform of 2004, he told a press conference on August 20. Tymoshenko and Yushchenko also agree that the constitutional assembly should be comprised of constitutional law experts, rather than politicians. In his Independence Day address on August 24, Yushchenko said that he would authorize the creation of a constitutional assembly in order to draft a new constitution, which should then be approved by a referendum. Speaking during a trip to Chernihiv on August 29, Yushchenko said that the year 2008 should be devoted to changing the constitution.
The first attempt to change the Ukrainian constitution by a popular referendum in order to boost presidential powers, launched by former President Leonid Kuchma, failed. In the referendum of April 16, 2000, the majority of Ukrainians voted in favor of allowing the president to dissolve parliament if it cannot form a majority, canceling deputy immunity from prosecution, and introducing a bicameral legislature. Parliament, however, did not agree to the amendments.
(Channel 5, August 17; 1+1 TV, August 19; UT1, August 20, 24; Silski visti, August 22; Interfax-Ukraine, August 29, September 3)