Under Ukraine's current constitution, the president is popularly elected. According to the plan rejected today, popular presidential elections would have taken place as scheduled this October, but with the new president's term shortened from five years to just two. In 2006, new elections would have been held, with the chief executive being selected by parliament.
Kuchma's supporters had defended their proposal as an attempt to bring Ukraine in line with Western democracies by strengthening the power of parliament at the expense of the presidency. But the opposition accused Kuchma of deliberately seeking to weaken the presidency before the end of his second term in office, to ensure only minimal powers for his successor.
A Constitutional Court ruling late last year cleared the way for Kuchma to seek a third term if he wishes. The court concluded that because Kuchma was midway through his first term when Ukraine's new constitution was adopted, a third term would technically be only his second under the constitution.
Kuchma has declared he does not intend to run in the October contest. But some speculate he had set his sights instead on securing a parliamentary appointment to the presidency in 2006, as the proposed constitutional changes would have allowed. Viktor Yushchenko, the head of the opposition Our Ukraine bloc, is the current favorite to win the October poll.
Yushchenko and his allies criticized the proposed constitutional changes as a cynical attempt to diminish the importance of the presidency just as Yushchenko prepared to grasp the mantle of power, and to prepare the ground for Kuchma to regain power two years later.
Kuchma's own role in the issue is murky. Throughout the controversy, he has sought to present himself as a statesman above the fray. Speaking in October of last year, the Ukrainian president said he did not back his supporters' proposal to weaken the presidency or change the electoral system. "I want to emphasize once again: I am for the direct election of the president," he said. "In my opinion, this election should be scheduled for the year 2004. And don't misinterpret me. I'll say it once more, I am not preparing for anything -- neither to be president [next term], nor to play any other games."
What is clear is that pressure on those favoring changes to the electoral system was intense. The European Union said in a statement on 30 January that while it recognized Ukraine's sovereign right to change its constitutional framework, the proposed reforms could have a negative impact on the confidence of voters, particularly in an election year. The Council of Europe adopted a similarly critical report.
Opposition deputies said today their struggle is far from over. They are seeking to overturn other proposed constitutional changes that were preliminarily approved during a first parliamentary reading on 24 December. Among them is a bid by Kuchma supporters to lower the threshold for a party to enter parliament from the current minimum 4 percent to just 1 percent.