Unilateral decree to dissolve Parliament and call May 27 election faces constitutional challenge, raises possibility of military involvement
On Monday, President Viktor Yushchenko of Ukraine signed a decree that dissolved parliament and established May 27 as the date for new elections. However, both Parliament and the Cabinet of Ministers have rejected this decree as unconstitutional. In a televised meeting that ran into the early hours of Tuesday, the cabinet ordered all government institutions not to obey it.
How serious is this impasse and what does it mean for the future of Ukraine?
Yushchenko’s position is fairly weak. In an address to “the Ukrainian people,” which was published on the website of Ukrains’ka Pravda, he cited some objectionable occurrences in Parliament, particularly the changing of allegiance of several MPs at the behest of the governing Regions party, led by Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych.
In recent weeks, eleven MPs of the now United Opposition (Tymoshenko Bloc and Our Ukraine) have defected to the ruling coalition, which wants to reach the magic 300-vote threshold, at which it could overturn a presidential veto or change the country’s constitution. On March 24, after a prolonged dispute, Arsenii Yatsenyuk was appointed foreign minister after parliament had successfully blocked Yushchenko’s candidate, Volodymyr Ohryzhko. On this day also, Anatolii Kinakh, a former prime minister who leads the Party of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, crossed the floor and subsequently was appointed minister of economics.Yushchenko maintains that it is his duty to preserve the state and the sovereign integrity of Ukraine. He denounced “illegitimate” and “unconstitutional” decisions, cheating, and intrigue, claiming that the parliamentary majority seeks to usurp power.Whether he is upholding the law is very debatable.
The constitution may offer some solace in that changes to factions can only take place within one month after the election. It is also indisputable that the Regions party is resorting to harassment, persuasion, and allegedly even bribes to induce opposition deputies to switch sides. On the other hand, the election of March 2006 was recognized internationally as free and fair. Though the vote was split between several parties, the Regions had a substantial lead over the next closest challenger, the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc. Further, although the Orange forces — victorious after the uprising of 2004 overturned the original, flawed decision of the presidential election — had a small plurality of the votes, they failed to form a coalition. There is no reason on paper, therefore, for the president to call another election so soon.
Moreover, a presidential decree becomes lawful once published in one of the government newspapers. Both newspapers are effectively in the hands of the Regions party and may decide not to publish the decree dissolving Parliament.
Parliament has appealed for a ruling from the Constitutional Court. That court would need to deal with a minefield of legal problems, not least a number of decisions passed by the current session, and the question of the limitations placed on presidential power over the past two years. Expected within a week, the decision is more likely to favour the Cabinet of Ministers and Parliament over the position of the president.
If Yushchenko’s decision is overturned, where does that leave him? He stated in his address dissolving Parliament that “there will be no disruptions to prevent this manoeuvre” and that “all efforts to threaten the security (of citizens) will be overcome and punished.” But who will carry out these “punishments?”
Yushchenko has one critical source of support, namely the Ukrainian army. The Cabinet of Ministers deploys the Special Forces, crack troops who are trained for emergencies. One can hardly imagine that such agencies would be deployed against each other, but it is the scenario that is most feared. In 1993, a similar confrontation occurred in Moscow, during which the Russian army was turned on the defiant Parliament by then president Boris Yeltsin.
Last weekend, both sides marshalled their support in a show of strength in Kyiv. Observers for the Boston-based Institute for the Study of Conflict, Ideology, and Policy claim that 70,000 people met on Independence Square to protest the tactics of Yanukovych, while 30,000 rallied on behalf of the prime minister. However, a report in the Eurasian Daily Monitor says that supporters of the ruling group were in the majority. The point is clear: the Yanukovych forces are now mobilized and powerful. They do not intend to be taken by surprise as they were by the size of the demonstrations in 2004.
There is no easy way out of this impasse. Yushchenko has been forced to take a strong stand belatedly because he has seen his power slip away. Yet his assertion of authority is constitutionally questionable. Though he has Article 83 of the constitution (on formation of majority factions) on his side, in other respects his position is less tenable.
Further, even if another election were to be held in May, his support is low and he would be obliged to reach a new compromise with his nemesis Tymoshenko, recently returned from a successful and high-profile visit to the United States.
More critical is the avoidance of civil conflict, which could end a period of economic and social stability in Ukraine. The moral high ground may belong to the president, but his only alternatives are confrontation or resignation.