UKRAINE: Election Set to Bring Another Crisis

BUDAPEST, Hungary -- The political crisis that has ravaged Ukraine since President Viktor Yushchenko decided to dissolve parliament is not likely to end with the early elections scheduled for Sep. 30.

Viktor Yushchenko

On Apr. 2 President Yushchenko issued a decree dissolving parliament and calling for fresh parliamentary elections, which was disobeyed by the pro-governmental majority.

The President claimed the government was usurping power after some opposition parliamentarians moved to the ruling coalition.

The number of pro-government deputies was getting dangerously close to 300, and that would be enough to make constitutional changes that could weaken the President's power and set aside any presidential veto.

With both sides feeling that the slightest concession to the opponent meant a public admission of guilt, finding a compromise became a daunting task.

Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich and the President bickered for weeks over the legality of their actions, and even over the loyalty of Ukraine's uniformed agencies, creating widespread fears of a violent escalation of events.

Unlike on previous occasions, both the West and Russia refrained from intervening in Ukraine's domestic affairs, opting to adopt the stance that the post-Soviet republic should sort out its own problems.

Yushchenko's decree raised many eyebrows among legal experts, and the country's Supreme Court was expected to rule against him.

Repeated dismissals of judges by the President, and what the head of the Ukrainian Supreme Court Vasyl Onopenko termed as "unprecedented pressure", presumably from both sides of the conflict, contributed to paralysing the court's procedures.

Nevertheless, Yanukovich was likely to accept the early election anyway, using it as an extra trump card in negotiations with the opposition.

While the May 27 agreement to hold an early election in September is a victory for the national-liberal opposition, the date of the election is to the ruling Party of the Regions' liking.

The government will have time to increase its support ratings by raising pensions and the minimum wage.

"The Party of the Regions agreed to the election because they think they can play this game and win even more votes," Ivan Presniakov, political analyst at the Kiev-based International Centre for Policy Studies told IPS.

On Jun. 27 Yushchenko temporarily agreed to suspend his decree dissolving parliament to allow deputies to approve amendments to the election law which are needed to conduct the elections.

After the session one-third of the members of parliament gave up their mandate, giving Yushchenko legal grounds to sign a fourth decree dissolving parliament on Aug. 1 and legitimising the upcoming election.

Experts have, however, warned that inconsistencies in the law will provide fertile ground for any losing force to contest the election result, something which populist opposition leader Yuliya Tymoshenko, leader of the bloc named after her, has already begun to suggest.

Ukrainian politics remains shady and closed, and the multitude of behind-the-stage deals and possible alliances are the subject of constant and often contradictory speculation by Ukrainian journalists and pundits.

The uncertainty over the election outcome and the similar support rates of both sides gives strength to the idea that more important than a few more votes will be the coalition-forming negotiations.

The Party of the Regions will run on its own, but leaving open the possibility of re-enacting the coalition if communists, socialists or both make it into parliament.

Much of the Ukrainian media has speculated on dissension within the ruling Party of the Regions, but the recent publication of the Party's list did not indicate any significant power loss for Yanukovich, who was also confirmed as the Prime Minister candidate for the party.

A grand coalition has also not been excluded by Yanukovich's party, which is striving to be seen as a mainstream pro-European force, and has to cope with the socialists loss of popularity and the communists' radical demand of eliminating the presidency altogether.

But so far opposition forces are dismissing a joint cabinet with elements of the current government. The question in the 'orange' liberal camp backed by Yushchenko remains which party will put forward the Prime Minister candidate in case of victory.

Yuliya Tymoshenko's bloc is expected to take the biggest chunk of opposition votes, but Yushchenko's Our Ukraine Party has strengthened its support base by joining forces with the People's Self-Defence bloc, a popular movement set up by former interior minister Yuriy Lutsenko.

Moreover, pro-presidential forces are hoping that thanks to the President's recent bold steps, Tymoshenko can be outplayed by presenting an "image of a strong President who is struggling against Yanukovich, which is also a good start for his presidential campaign in 2009," Presniakov told IPS.

In the meantime, the public continues to grow cynical as the idealism of past years fades away. Ukrainian media speculates that television channels might refuse to allow key political figures to debate on television, and instead expose their populist tendencies.

Some claim that behind the ideological battle lie purely economic interests. Kost Bondarenko, a Ukrainian political analyst, wrote in the local media that "it is precisely the economic factor that was definitive in sparking the crisis" after the government prevented the 'orange' side from benefiting from privatisation deals.

Still, in Presniakov's view, "there is no single reason for the conflict; on all sides there are different people with different goals and incentives. The structural conflict between the Prime Minister and the President is more important."

The existence of a structural political problem has been admitted by all main sides in the political conflict, and there is relative consensus on the need for a new constitution.

The opposition and the pro-presidential forces want to introduce a binding mandate in parliament to avoid future desertions, whereas the Party of the Regions would like to see the new constitution envisaging that only parliament, and not the President can initiate the legislative branch's dissolution.

Both sides have also suggested that high-ranking officials should be stripped of immunity.

There is no unanimity on how and when to approve a new document, but Tymoshenko is demanding a referendum on the same day as the elections, and is collecting signatures in support of the idea.

Nobody will be surprised if Ukrainian politicians fail to agree once again.

Source: Inter Press Service