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Election Crisis Week 3 - 5-12 December 2004

Ukraine's election crisis entered its third week showing no sign of ending, as the two sides in the political battle again locked horns in a new standoff. Although President Leonid Kuchma says he is "ready to compromise," tens of thousands of opposition protesters remain in downtown Kiev, to keep up the pressure.

President Kuchma called for new talks after he accused the opposition of reneging on last week's agreement to approve certain reforms. The reforms would transfer many presidential powers to parliament, and have been under discussion since April 2004. The reforms would transfer power from the president to the parliament on appointing all top government posts except for the prime minister, defense, and foreign ministers. The president's candidates for those three posts would need to be approved by lawmakers. Pro-government forces say the changes could go a long way in reassuring pro-Russia regions in the east of Ukraine that pro-reform candidate Yushchenko would not have too much power, if he is elected president.

But opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko says the government wants to make too many changes because they fear he will win the presidency in the new runoff vote ordered by the supreme court. The opposition says it wants to first see President Kuchma honor his promise to fire the Yanukovich government and dismiss the Central Election Comission that oversaw the last elections, before proceeding with political reform. Parliament adjourned for a ten-day break without passing electoral reforms intended to ensure the election on December 26th will be free and fair.

On 05 December 2004 opposition supporters held fresh street protests in the capital. Thousands of demonstrators were massed at government buildings and on Kyiv's central Independence Square. They vowed to stay until the path is clear for the repeat presidential balloting expected on 26 December. The atmosphere on the streets remained more like a carnival than a protest.

Speaking to the crowd, Yushchenko said that opposition would demand a special Parliament session on Monday to change the election law. According to him, "this is the main initiative" and it has to be done on Monday, maximum Tuesday or Wednesday, otherwise the new law cannot be implemented before December 26 when the new runoff is set. He accused those in power that they didn't keep their promises, which they had given four-five days ago. He pointed out that Kuchma hadn't dismissed the government, hadn't suggested new members for the Central Electoral Committee to the Parliament and had vetoed the draft of the new election law, which would make it impossible to vote with absentee ballots or at home and would provide equal representation of both candidates in the local electoral committees.

Yushchenko called on Kuchma to fire his government and change the members of the election commission. He also called on both parliament and Kuchma to approve changes to an election law to prevent vote rigging. "Until these decisions are taken, there cannot be any talk of lifting the picketing of the government buildings or presidential palace," Yushchenko said in Independence Square. In particular, the opposition is demanding of Kuchma the following:

  1. The resignation of Viktor Yanukovych's government. "Parliament passed a decision relating to this on Dec. 1. There's no need for more evidence. The president should act in a way appropriate to the Constitution," Yushchenko said.
  2. That he fire the current staff of the Central Election Commission and send to the Rada a proposal for a new CEC hierarchy. "With the current staff, it's impossible that the CEC could run honest, democratic elections on Dec. 26," Yushchenko said.
  3. That, after they are accepted by Parliament, he sign changes to the law "On Ukrainian Presidential Elections" that are meant to lower the possibility of falsification. These changes include banning absentee ballots, voting from home and forming an unproportional staff compositions within the electoral commissions.

These opposition demands have stalled in parliament. Kuchma says he is prepared to recommend approval of the changes, but only if Yushchenko agrees to simultaneous constitutional reforms that will shift power from the presidency to the prime minister. The president would lose the power to appoint all government ministers, except for the prime minister, foreign and defense ministers. The head of state would also lose exclusive control of the intelligence services.

This is a no-win situation for the opposition. Either they get the guarantees that will ensure a clean vote on 26 December, but the presidency will be significantly weakened and power will be shifted to the parliament and prime minister. Or the opposition will face the prospect that the vote on 26 December will be manipulated the same way it was on 21 November. Yushchenko had agreed to endorse the changes in the President's power in order to win the backing of Socialist Party leader Oleksandr Moroz, whose support was considered critical to Yushchenko winning votes in eastern Ukraine and in urban areas. Moroz, who came in third in the first round of voting on 31 October 2004, threw his support behind Yushchenko in the second round of balloting. Moroz had long advocated moving from a Presidential to a parliamentary form of government, though he had been critical of the details of Kuchma's proposals.

International mediators from the European Union, Poland and Lithuania arrived in Ukraine 06 December 2004 for a roundtable session aimed at resolving changes to electoral laws that parliament failed to pass on Saturday 04 December 2004. Polish president Aleksander Kwasniewski mediated that new round of negotiations. OSCE Secretary General Jan Kubas, EU High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana, and Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus also participated. For the first time since the mediation began, Russia's views were also represented by Russian parliamentary speaker, Boris Gryzlof. The talks at Kiev's Mariansky Palace grouped President Kuchma and the opposing presidential candidates, Yanukovych and Yushchenko.

On 07 December 2004 it was planned that a meeting of the Rada would pass changes in the constitution and pass changes to the election law. The government will resign and there will be another central election commission appointed. The surprise announcement, which was made in a statement by the parliament's co-ordinating committee, came two days after parliament adjourned having failed to resolve the impasse.

But Ukraine's ongoing political crisis took another unexpected turn, when late-night talks involving international mediators broke up without an expected compromise deal. Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski, who helped mediate the talks, said the agreement marked only minimal progress, and that the differences between the sides remained "enormous." Speaking to reporters in Kiev, Kwasniewski said the candidates did little more than define their differences in six hours of talks.

The two sides in Ukraine's election dispute failed to agree on the issue of whether to weaken the powers of the presidency, as the current government wants. Kuchma continues to insist that the opposition agree to his demands concerning constitutional amendments, putting any deal in doubt. The opposition says that Yanukovych's departure is especially important, as it would deprive the prime minister of what are called "administrative resources" to unfairly influence the campaign in the three weeks leading up to the election.

Opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko, made clear the opposition would go on fighting over the issue. "Bill 4180 (to reduce presidential powers) in its current form, allows parliament to take over practically all presidential powers. If we approve it in full, then presidential polls will lose their point. There will be no difference who is president, because any president after such reform will be a ceremonial figure," she told the Russian daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta.

On 07 December 2004 Ukraine's parliament met briefly before calling for a short recess. Parliament convened amid continuing uncertainty about what comes next. Parliament began debating opposition-proposed changes to the election law to help prevent fraud in the Supreme Court-mandated 26 December repeat of the poll. They also were expected to debate government-proposed constitutional changed that would trim presidential powers. But parliament's agenda was unclear since Ukraine's political rivals remain deadlocked over several key election issues. Parliament finally adjourned after a day of angry speeches but no vote on electoral reforms.

Observers expected Kuchma to cave in to the opposition's demand to fire Yanukovych. Kuchma was under enormous pressure, and he had been slowly taking a step back every day. If Kuchma agreed to fire Yanukovych, Yushchenko will be left with little choice but to support the political reform to hand some presidential powers to parliament. The solution might include an understanding that the prime minister will come from one camp and the president from the other. Those who took power would presumably need to demonstrate magnanimity and offer significant posts in any new government to the rival camp.

By 07 December 2004 most transportation services hade been restored. But large numbers of demonstrators continue to hold rallies on main Kiev streets, which remain closed to traffic. The presence of police combined with expectations of counterdemonstrations make the potential for localized disorder a possibility. Even demonstrations intended to be peaceful can turn confrontational and possibly escalate into violence.

On 08 December 2004 Ukraine's parliament adopted constitutional electoral changes, reaching a compromise to end the nation's political crisis. Under the revised constitution, the president keeps the right to reject parliamentary nominees for the top three positions -- prime minister, foreign minister and defense minister, but no longer has the power to appoint his own government. The vote prompted opposition leaders to lift the two-week blockade of government buildings. But Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych said he was "not happy" with parliament's decision, which he described as a "soft coup d' etat."

By 11 December 2004 the Ukrainian opposition was confident that Victor Yushchenko will be declared Ukraine's president after a second round of voting in the nation's contested presidential election.

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