A majority of parliament lawmakers, including members of the Party of Regions led by Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, responded by condemning the decree as a "step toward a coup d'etat" and indicated they would disobey the president's order.
Yushchenko's decision to dissolve the parliament and call new elections followed last week's defection of a dozen opposition deputies to the ruling coalition of the Party of Regions, the Socialist Party, and the Communist Party.
That changeover strengthened the government's support base in the 450-seat Rada to some 260 votes.
Yushchenko was evidently afraid that even more defections from his Our Ukraine bloc and the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc would follow, allowing Yanukovych to increase the parliamentary coalition to a constitutional majority of 300 votes.
In such a scenario, Yanukovych's coalition would be able to override presidential vetoes, change the constitution, and reduce the Ukrainian presidency to a merely symbolic role or even abolish it altogether.
By dissolving parliament, Yushchenko, who has often been criticized for indecisiveness, made his boldest move since being elected president in December 2004.
In a television address to the nation on April 2, Yushchenko asserted that it was his presidential responsibility to disband the legislature.
"My actions were dictated by the urgent necessity to save the state, its sovereignty, and territorial integrity, and to ensure the constitution of Ukraine, the rights and liberties of people and citizens, are upheld," he said. "I would like to underline that this is not only my right, it is my duty."
Yushchenko stressed that the main legal reason for the dissolution of the legislature was the ruling coalition's push to convince individual deputies from the opposition to switch allegiance to the parliamentary majority.
The constitution, he argued, unambiguously stipulates that such a majority should consist of parliamentary factions, rather than individuals.
Some Ukrainian commentators maintain that Yushchenko's justification for his decree is shaky, to say the least.
They point out that the Ukrainian Constitution explicitly states only three cases when the president may call early parliamentary elections: if the Verkhovna Rada fails to form a majority within 30 days after its first sitting, or a new cabinet within 60 days after the dismissal or resignation of the previous one; or if it fails to gather for a sitting within 30 days during an ongoing parliamentary session.
So did Yushchenko overstep his bounds in issuing the decree to disband the Verkhovna Rada?
Parliament speaker Oleksandr Moroz on April 2 had no doubt about this.
"The Verkhovna Rada, with all its responsibilities, states that today there are no legal reasons to dissolve this parliament, which people freely elected according to all the democratic standards as recognized by all the Ukrainian and international organizations, and the president himself," Moroz said.
During a late-night emergency session, lawmakers from the ruling coalition adopted an address to the nation, blasting Yushchenko's decree as a "step toward a coup d'etat."
They also passed two other resolutions that have added fuel to the rising political tensions in the country -- they revoked their resolution of December 2004 on the formation of the Central Election Commission, and banned the government from funding a campaign for early parliamentary elections.
Moreover, the ruling coalition today made a formal request to the Constitutional Court, asking it to pass a judgment on Yushchenko's decree.
The Constitutional Court, however, has failed to gather for a single session in the past six months. Some argue that it may take months for the panel of 18 judges to rule on the decree.
Lesser Of Two Evils
Yushchenko formally put his decree into effect today by publishing it in his official bulletin.
There seem to be two immediate options available for Ukraine's main political players to move ahead in the current political crisis.
A less favorable scenario, for Ukrainian politicians, is to wait for the Constitutional Court ruling and, in the meantime, allow people to decide in street rallies who of the two key figures -- Yushchenko and Yanukovych -- is more loved by the electorate.
Such an option would almost certainly deepen the historical divide between the west and the east of Ukraine and, in an extreme case, could lead to bloodshed or even split the country into two political entities.
A better option for both sides is to hold fresh elections in May -- even if the decision would represent a major political boost for Yushchenko, at Yanukovych's expense.
But if Yanukovych wants to maintain the standing of a responsible prime minister and guarantee a public role for himself in post-crisis Ukraine, he should do everything possible to preserve the country's political stability, rather than satisfying his personal ambitions by outplaying and marginalizing Yushchenko.
Yanukovych at the emergency cabinet meeting suggested in enigmatic fashion that he was mulling over a "third" option for resolving the current standoff between Yushchenko and himself:
"If the president does publish his decree... he still has the chance to rescind it," the prime minister said. "I will not say out loud what the third option is. All other [options] would boost tensions significantly in Ukraine, and the president would be fully responsible for that heavy burden."
Some were quick to conclude that the prime minister does not rule out a show of force in dealing with the president.
Defense Minister Anatoliy Hrytsenko, one of the two presidential allies in Yanukovych's cabinet, felt obliged to immediately clarify whose side the armed forces would take in such a scenario, saying the army would only carry out those orders coming from the "commander in chief" -- Yushchenko.
Irrespective of what course political events in Ukraine may take in the coming days and weeks, Ukrainians are certain to face a newly turbulent and nerve-racking period.
Yushchenko supporters attend a rally in Kyiv on December 26-27, 2005
RETHINKING THE ORANGE: The March 26 elections are the first major national referendum on President Viktor Yushchenko and the ideals of the Orange Revolution that brought him to power in early 2005. Opinion polls in Ukraine indicate widespread dissatisfaction with developments in the country since Yushchenko took power. The results of the elections are expected to clarify whether Yushchenko will be able to step up the implementation of his reformist policies declared during the 2004 Orange Revolution or whether he will get mired even deeper in political wrangling with his opponents...(more)
Click on the image to view a photo gallery of some of the key players in the Ukrainian elections.