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Ukraine: Voters Support More Powers For The President

Ukraine's President Leonid Kuchma won overwhelming endorsement for changes to parliament that increase his powers, in a controversial referendum which ended Sunday. That was a victory for Kuchma in his battle with parliament, but the war looks set to continue. RFE/RL correspondent Askold Krushelnycky reports.

Prague, 17 April 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Electoral commission results today showed that Ukrainians gave overwhelming backing for President Leonid Kuchma's proposals in a referendum.

Nearly 29 million people -- about 80 percent of those eligible to vote -- took part in the referendum, which officially began on April 6 and ended with its heaviest day of polling on Sunday.

Between 80 and 90 percent of respondents voted the way Kuchma hoped they would on the four referendum issues.

Voters supported giving the president increased powers to dissolve the parliament; to lower the number of parliamentary deputies from 450 to 300; to remove deputies' immunity to criminal prosecution; and to create a second parliamentary chamber. The president would appoint members of the second chamber, which is intended to represent the interests of the regions.

Kuchma said the referendum was needed to end years of infighting among parliament deputies and a deadlock between the presidency and parliament. He said the deadlock had crippled attempts to introduce vital economic reforms and had prolonged the country's decline into poverty.

But his opponents from across the political spectrum criticized the referendum, saying it undermined parliament. They said the referendum was unconstitutional, although Ukraine's Constitutional Court ruled it could go ahead.

The Council of Europe, the 41-nation body that monitors democratic and human rights standards, also criticized the referendum. It has said Ukraine's membership could be suspended if Kuchma tries to impose the referendum's results without parliament's approval.

The Council of Europe and other international bodies did not send observers, and some accusations of vote-rigging have surfaced. The Election Commission said it is investigating, and added that any violations were few in number.

But parliament has such a poor reputation among many Ukrainians, who regard most of its members as corrupt and incompetent, that an outcome against parliament was almost a certainty.

Indeed, the questions that gained the highest popular approval were for reducing the number of deputies and stripping them of their immunity from prosecution.

But although Kuchma has convincingly won the first battle -- to hold the referendum and secure the results he wanted -- he could now face months of feuding with parliament to implement those results.

The very threat of the referendum prompted parliament to reorganize itself last January into a majority that has been supporting Kuchma's reform proposals. But he says the majority is unstable and the referendum results must be implemented.

But to do that, a parliamentary majority must first vote in favor of a bill proposing the amendments. Next, a two-thirds majority of parliament must vote in favor of each of the actual amendments.

To get a two-thirds majority is going to be extremely difficult. But Ukrainian legal experts are not sure whether deputies may vote against constitutional changes legally approved by Ukrainian voters.

Also unclear are what steps, if any, the president may take if deputies reject the results of the referendum. If he tries to impose them against parliament's will, that could not only provoke suspension from the Council of Europe but, more important, could again wreck Ukraine's chances to press ahead with essential economic reforms.