Ukraine’s political crisis, which has been building for months, has taken a dramatic turn with President Viktor Yushchenko’s decision to dissolve parliament and call new elections for 27 May.
Yushchenko’s main rival and current Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych has called the move a coup.
Yushchenko and Yanukovych have been in an uneasy “cohabitation” forced upon the President when one of his erstwhile “Orange Revolution” allies, the Socialist Party, joined with Yanukovych after the parliamentary elections in March, 2006.
The crisis shows the continuing disagreement about the scope of the powers of the president and the parliament. After the Orange Revolution, the rival Viktors agreed to a series of constitutional amendments that stripped the presidency of initiative in the appointment or dismissal of the Prime Minister and cabinet, placing that power in whatever majority forms within parliament. However, the presidency retained its veto (requiring two thirds to override), and appointment power over some ministries and other officials. (With his veto, the President was able to block the 2007 budget that the Prime Minister’s coalition had passed.) This arrangement, with a cabinet dependent primarily on parliament but the latter facing a veto-wielding presidency, was sure to be unstable, especially in the absence of well established political parties.
The uncertainties over the precise balance of presidential and prime-ministerial powers and the weakness of political parties have both played into the generation of this moment of crisis. Parliament last year passed a Law on the Cabinet over the head of Yushchenko’s veto. While in some ways the law merely institutionalized the agreements made in the wake of the Orange Revolution regarding the shift of most control over the cabinet to the parliamentary majority, the President objected that it went farther in depriving him of authority than what the amended constitution called for. (Please see the discussion of the cabinet law that I participated in over at the Orange Ukraine blog.)
As for the parties, Yanukovych has succeeded in wooing (buying?) individual MPs from even Yushchenko’s own party. The President has claimed that the party defections are unconstitutional. It seems (from my perspective) a stretch to make such an argument.* Nonetheless, clearly the spirit behind the shift to a single national district, closed-list PR, system for the 2006 elections was for parties to take precedence over individuals, who (by design) now have no personal accountability to voters or geographic subunits. The defections are reminders that while one can make candidates and legislators dependent for their election and reelection on party leaders, it is hard to legislate strong parties, and there is never a guarantee that MPs won’t find tempting the offers of leaders in parties other than the one on whose list they were elected.
As much as I dislike saying so, I think Yanukovych almost certainly has the constitutional argument on his side. I see no provision for early elections, other than as a result of failures of the parliamentary parties themselves to create a governing majority. Clearly, there is no such issue here. This indeed does look like a coup attempt by the President.
What I find particularly puzzling is why Yushchenko would want new elections. Given the absence of any trend in favor of the Orange forces over recent elections–even through the Orange Revolution itself–his prospects for significantly improving his position in a new parliamentary election would seem bleak. The table below shows the 2002, 2004, and 2006 results. It was originally part of a post-election analysis I did in this space, and at the previous planting there is some discussion of the patterns.
Note: I have covered Ukraine, a country have a strong personal passion for, off an on since the earliest days of this blog. Just click on the country name at the top of this entry and scroll for topics of possible interest.
* BBC notes that there is a provision of the constitution that says only factions, not individual MPs, can cross the floor. (Even so, dissolution would be a pretty drastic response to floor-crossing.)