UKRAINE: Political Turmoil Over Upcoming Presidential Elections
Vladimir Beron «View Bio

February 4, 2004

Ukraine"s bitterly feuding political factions are yet again at loggerheads, this time over attempts by pro-government parties to change the constitutional order by which the head of state is elected. At issue is whether incumbent President Leonid Kuchma may run for another term in the upcoming ballot that is scheduled for October, and should the next president be elected by a direct vote, as is the law currently, or be selected by parliament.

The latest high-profile political conflict came to a head in late December, when 276 out of 450 parliament members voted to approve on first reading constitutional amendments, the most contentious of which were sponsored by presidential administration head Viktor Medvedchuk and preliminarily approved by Communist leader Petro Symonenko. Hence, the so-called the Medvedchuk-Symonenko draft proposed direct elections in October for what would ultimately be an interim president, who will serve until a new parliament elects the next head of state in 2006. The proposition received its staunchest support from the ranks of the Social Democratic Party-united (SDPU-o), which is headed by Medvedchuk, while the Communists are said to have backed the draft in exchange for the introduction of a fully proportional, party-list system for parliamentary elections.

On the other side of the fence, Our Ukraine, led by Viktor Yushchenko, and the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc spearheaded the opposition to changes in the constitution, with their deputies doing their best to physically disrupt parliamentary proceedings. The Socialist Party of Ukraine parliamentary caucus largely opposed the draft amendments as well. Furthermore, the Constitutional Court added to the highly charged political environment by ruling on December 30 that President Kuchma is eligible to run in the October ballot, since he was first elected in 1994, before the current constitution was adopted, in 1996.

In addition to the widespread domestic opposition (polls indicate that as much as 80 percent of the electorate would prefer the president to be directly elected), the draft amendments proved quite controversial with the Western power brokers with which Ukraine is seeking to develop closer relations, including European institutions and the United States. In January, the Parliamentary Assembly at the Council of Europe (PACE) warned the Ukrainian government that the country"s membership in the organization is in danger of being suspended due to the push for constitutional changes that are apparently against the will of the majority of public opinion. The European Union also voiced concerns for the state of democratic progress in Ukraine, concerns echoed by the U.S. State Department.

The government brushed aside all the domestic and international criticism, but the mounting opposition to the draft proposals evidently had a sobering effect on the regime. President Kuchma backed a last-minute compromise deal for dropping the amendments concerning the presidential election procedures, which was approved on February 3 by some 304 votes in parliament, including those of the Socialist faction. However, Viktor Yushchenko"s Our Ukraine and the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc abstained from the vote, sending the clear signal that the war over any constitutional changes is far from over.

In retrospect, the essence of this tumultuous dispute over the proposed constitutional changes lies in a long-running struggle for influence among the political elites for the realignment of power in the post-Kuchma era. The incumbent president has declared on numerous occasions that he has no intention of running in the October elections, so the amendments are seen as a concerted effort led by Medvedchuk to ensure that his SDPU-o will retain its influence over the government after Kuchma is no longer in office. Given that Yushchenko consistently ranks in opinion surveys as the most popular politician in Ukraine, the purpose of the draft amendments is apparently to either discourage him from running for what essentially is an interim position, or if he did choose to do so, to deny him a full term. Since the Medvedchuk camp has a rather strong position in parliament, he will have control over the choice of the leadership in a 2006 election by the deputies.

Conversely, the opposition is mainly banking on Yushchenko"s popular support to capture the presidency, as they failed to take control of the government after the 2002 parliamentary elections, even though Yushchenko"s party gathered the largest percentage of the votes. This exposed serious deficiencies in the electoral system and precluded the opposition from taking charge, especially since Yushchenko proved unable to forge viable alliances in parliament. By contrast, the Kuchma regime showed great skill in marginalizing the opposition camp despite its success at the ballot box. This experience, however, has apparently taught Yushchenko that populism alone will not get him far in the rough and tough world of Ukrainian politics, and he is said to have made overtures to oligarchs who have concluded that legitimate democratic operations will serve them well in the post-Kuchma era. Yushchenko has made it clear that his administration will not seek to reverse dubious privatizations of the 1990s, and powerful oligarchic groups, such as those based in Donetsk and Dnipropetrovsk, are said to have warmed to the idea of him as president.

Naturally, a split in the oligarchic base is the last thing that Medvedchuk wants to see, as his SDPU-o stands to lose the most from any power realignments. If Kuchma cannot be returned to the helm, the next best option for the old guard would be a diminished authority for the presidency and substantially increased powers for the parliament. To this end, Medvedchuk"s legislative proposals include limiting the number of ministers chosen by the president to four, while granting the parliament authority to approve or dismiss all the members of the cabinet and other senior government officials. It is on these issues that the next round of the constitutional battle will be fought between the SDPU-o and the Our Ukraine-Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc, with Communists and the Socialists likely to cause further complications in the process. So far, though, there is no indication that the political crisis will degenerate into the street unrest of 2000 and 2002, although tensions are bound to increase as October approaches.

Vladimir Beron is Senior Risk Analyst with the international risk management group, Sentigence.