Democratic Impasse

Economic News

22 Jul 2010
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As the tussle between president and parliament over the recent sacking of the government continues, Ukrainian democracy is experiencing yet more growing pains.

With neither side showing any willingness to back down over constitutional reform issues and the supreme court paralysed, it may be again be up to the Ukrainian people to resolve the conflict.

Despite parliamentary pressure, President Viktor Yushchenko maintains that last week's vote of no confidence in the government over the sharp gas price increase was invalid, because the deputies did not stick to the letter of the law.

According to Yushchenko, at least one-third of the 450-seat parliament had to sign a petition calling for a vote of no confidence - a procedure which was neglected by the rebellious lawmakers.

Meanwhile, parliamentary deputies, even those formerly loyal to the President, claim that they have simply exercised their right to dismiss the government, in line with the new constitution that came into force on January 1.

The "politreforma" (political reform), as it is widely referred to in Kiev, was borne out of a compromise between Viktor Yushchenko and rival Viktor Yanukovich after the second round of controversial presidential elections in December 2004.

In order to prevent vote rigging, the Yanukovich camp was asked to accept new election laws, in exchange for Yushchenko's agreement to a substantial decrease in presidential powers. The most important concession in favour of parliament was the right to appoint the prime minister.

While the political reform deal helped to ensure Yushchenko's victory in the repeat presidential ballot, he has ended up with a much-depleted political mandate and vulnerable to a hostile government that might be appointed by parliament after the March elections.

In forcing through a vote of no confidence so soon after the constitutional reforms came into force, many analysts say deputies intended to expose the president's weakness ahead of the parliamentary elections.

Before closing the eighth session of parliament on January 20 for winter recess, the deputies flexed their political power muscles when they voted to dismiss the minister of justice and the minister of fuel and energy and called upon the government to renegotiate the gas contract with Russia.

Although few believe that the President or the government will honour parliament's decision, another anti-government bill has unleashed more bad blood. The prospects for political tensions subsiding in the near future, analysts say, look decidedly gloomy.

The latest anti-government bill was again supported by the same anti-presidential bloc in parliament that includes Yushchenko's former allies - ex-prime minister Yulya Tymoshenko and the parliamentary speaker, Volodymyr Lytvyn.

In an interview with OBG on January 18, the first president of independent Ukraine, Leonid Kravchuk, argued that the current president has shot himself in the foot by refusing to accept the new constitutional order - thus stepping outside the accepted rules of political engagement.

"It is strange that Yushchenko is picking a fight with deputies, some 80% of whom are likely to hold on to their seats after the elections. His refusal to accept the new constitution", Kravchuk suggested, "may well result in impeachment procedures."

Meanwhile, the standoff between the President and the lawmakers appears to have reached a cul-de-sac.

Yushchenko told local media this week that that until parliament rescinds the earlier vote of no confidence and unblocks the Constitutional Court's operations, he will not negotiate.

The deputies, however, are not showing any political will to back down either. The influential Socialist Party leader Oleksandr Moroz told local media on January 19 that many deputies do not trust the Constitutional Court's ability to accept the transition from a presidential to parliamentary political framework.

According to Moroz, the only action that could break the political impasse is if the president were to accept and honour the new constitutional provisions.

Meanwhile, Yushchenko has clearly signalled in local and foreign media that he wants to call a referendum to defend the old power balance.

In an interview to the Financial Times on January 13 President Yushchenko said, "The changes to the constitution were an anti-constitutional action (...). The constitution will have to be defended is an obvious fact, with the help of the people, with the help of a referendum, with the mobilisation of all democratic forces."

While, the President refused to give a date on when this referendum might be called, his press department told local media it will not be until after the March elections.

Calling a referendum, analysts argue, would be a risky strategy for the President. Even if he gathers 3m signatures to call a referendum, he may find little appetite in the country for another political adventure. While the President's approval ratings remain quite low, he will struggle to secure the desired outcome.

Yet despite the cloud of political tension and uncertainty that hangs over the country, some analysts think that this is all part of a normal process of democratic evolution and should not be lamented.

"Democracy naturally provokes political competition and this is what we are witnessing today," Vira Nanivska, director of the International Centre for Policy Studies, told OBG this week. "Democracy is not a gift from God and like skating and skiing, we need to learn to master it."

"Unfortunately, we often implement things and only then deal with consequences," Nanivska added. "It is like trying to repair a car, while travelling at breakneck speed."

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