The elections to the 450-seat Verkhovna Rada are the first in independent Ukraine to be contested under a fully proportional, party-list system. In effect, this means the representatives of each party in parliament have been predetermined based on the party leadership's positioning of candidates on its candidates list, leaving voters merely to decide the number of parliamentary mandates each party will obtain.
Only parties garnering at least 3 percent of the vote will be represented in parliament. Ballots cast for parties scoring less than 3 percent will be disregarded by the Central Election Commission in distributing election gains among the winners.
There are also two other important novelties in the election law. The new Verkhovna Rada will be elected for five years, compared to four years previously.
Furthermore, individuals elected to parliament will be barred from quitting the caucus of the party from which they were elected. The clause is potentially very controversial, as it does not include any suggestion as to what to do with lawmakers who might formally remain in a given caucus but vote against it.
Expanded Parliamentary Powers
The new Verkhovna Rada will have wider prerogatives than its predecessor as a result of the constitutional reform that was passed on December 8, 2004. The reform was seen as a compromise deal between the camp led by Yushchenko and that by his presidential rival Viktor Yanukovych to overcome an electoral impasse at the peak of the Orange Revolution.
Under the constitutional reform, a majority in parliament, rather than the president, will appoint the prime minister and most of the cabinet members. The president retains the right to appoint the foreign minister, the defense minister, the prosecutor-general, the head of the Security Service, and all regional governors.
Moreover, parliament, rather than the president, will have a decisive say in dismissing the prime minister or any other cabinet member.
On the other hand, the constitutional reform gives the president the right to dissolve parliament if it fails to form a majority within 30 days after its first sitting or to form a new cabinet within 60 days after the dismissal or resignation of the previous one.
Narrow Field Of Contenders
There are 45 parties and blocs vying for parliamentary seats in the March 26 elections, but surveys indicate that only six or seven of them have realistic chances of overcoming the 3 percent threshold for representation.
The election is expected to be won by Yanukovych's Party of Regions, which leads in opinion polls with backing of about 30 percent.
The combined popular support of two former Orange Revolution allies, the pro-Yushchenko Our Ukraine and the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc, matches or even slightly exceeds that of the Party of Regions.
Analysts say there are two likely options for a future governing coalition in Ukraine, depending on how the main contenders fare on March 26.
First, Yushchenko may try to rebuild the Orange Revolution alliance with Yuliya Tymoshenko, with whom he officially split in September 2005 by dismissing her from the post of prime minister.
A Yushchenko-Tymoshenko reunion would mean that Ukraine would continue to stay on track in its efforts to integrate with the rest of Europe, the final objectives being membership in NATO and the EU.
However, this scenario is fraught with some serious problems.
Tymoshenko has not concealed that she wants back the prime minister's post. But this is the last thing that many influential politicians in Yushchenko's entourage would like to see happen. A cabinet led by her could very likely stir up another conflict within the ruling camp.
Besides, a Yushchenko-Tymoshenko coalition would at best have a slim majority in the Verkhovna Rada, making it vulnerable to the deputy insubordinations or defections that have become characteristic of the Ukrainian parliament.
...Or Strange Bedfellows?
A much more stable scenario would see Yushchenko's Our Ukraine strike a coalition deal with Yanukovych's Party of Regions.
A cabinet supported by Our Ukraine and the Party of Regions would seemingly enjoy the safety net of parliamentary backing.
Since Our Ukraine and the Party of Regions are essentially run by oligarchs representing the interests of big business in Ukraine, there would be few obstacles to them agreeing on a basic set of economic, financial, or social reforms.
Finding a middle ground between the two in working out a joint foreign agenda would require much wisdom, responsibility, and compromise from both sides. But a resulting alliance could be worth the pain -- it could testify that the two major political forces in Ukraine see the country as an independent political player, rather than a participant in a geopolitical tug-of-war.
One of the principal drawbacks of a potential Yushchenko-Yanukovych alliance is that it would leave Yushchenko open to charges from Tymoshenko and her followers that he has "betrayed" the Orange Revolution by siding with his rival in the contentious 2004 presidential election. Yushchenko could see his support in western Ukraine erode even further, without any guarantee that he will make up for such losses by gaining support in the east.
Our Ukraine's deputy campaign chief, Roman Zvarych, told RFE/RL that despite the rumors, there will be no coalition after the elections between Our Ukraine and the Party of Regions.
Tymoshenko also has firmly ruled out the possibility of a post-election coalition with Yanukovych.
"Our positions are mutually exclusive," Tymoshenko said on March 21. "The political bloc that I head categorically stands for the complete separation of clans and criminals from the government. The core leadership of the Party of the Regions headed by Viktor Yanukovych represents one of the most powerful of such clans, whose intention is to use the government for the purpose of maximizing its capital. Cooperation between the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc and Party of Regions is therefore impossible in principle."
Whatever option Yushchenko chooses after the March 26 vote, he will have to keep in mind that days such as those of his predecessor, President Leonid Kuchma, -- when it was possible to run the country by decree and by bending the parliament to the president's will via pressure, bribery, or blackmail -- are gone for good.
(RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service contributed to this report.)
Campaign stands on a Kyiv street in ahead of the March 26 elections (RFE/RL)
RELOADED DEMOCRACY: On March 16, Ukrainian Ambassador to the United States OLEH SHAMSHUR held a briefing at RFE/RL's Washington office. Shamshur discussed the political and economic achievements of the last year and the political environment in the run-up to the legislative elections. "Many people would say it was a year lost," he said. "And I would categorically, even definitely, object to that. I think that it was a year not lost; it was a difficult year; it was the learning period when we were learning, or in some instances, relearning to act under the democratic rules and procedures. Some mistakes which were made were avoidable, some were hardly avoidable, but in any case it was very important period for Ukraine as a country, Ukraine as a new, or if you wish, rediscovered, reloaded democracy."
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