Ukraine: Yushchenko's Gamble

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Since dissolving parliament on April 2 and calling an early legislative election for late May, President Viktor Yushchenko has regained the tactical initiative after an eight-month retreat from the onslaught of the parliamentary coalition led by Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych. Although Yushchenko's opponents insists that no snap elections can be held unless the Constitutional Court agrees, there's little doubt in Ukraine that the poll will go ahead. But whether the election will break the political deadlock remains unclear. For Yuschenko to prevail, he will have to convince the electorate that his dissolution of parliament was justified on moral, political, and national security grounds, because its legal grounds remain shaky. And then, of course, there's the challenge of reuniting the ever factitious liberal Orange alliance, whose collapse allowed Yanukovych to win control of parliament. Both are tall orders.

Yushchenko will argue that the ruling coalition used bribery to coax some two dozen Orange alliance legislators to defect, thus giving Yanukovych his majority — and that it was using the same methods to try and muster the 300 votes that would allow it to marginalize the President initiate and constitutional changes to abolish the Presidency altogether. Yushchenko is telling the electorate that deputies elected on an Orange platform who then crossed over to the other side cheated their voters. The opposition counters that the President has violated the constitution, and has taken its case to the Constitutional Court. Having failed to dissuade the court from hearing the case, Yuschenko hopes it will delay its verdict until after the election, or pass a verdict sufficiently ambiguous to suit his purposes.

Elsewhere, Yanukovych's parliamentary coalition appears to have made a tactical blunder by kicking out all the Orange defectors who crossed the floor to join it — planning to have them vote with Yanukovych but from outside the formal coalition, and then to present this as a concession to the President. But a maneuver so transparent will only confirm Yushchenko's charges of cynicism against his opponents.

Yushchenko is turning up the heat by insisting on an April 17 deadline for submitting lists of candidates for the election, despite the fact that the Constitutional Court has yet to rule on the legality of the election. If Yanukovych and his allies fail to register, that's their problem, say the President's supporters. But an election that proceeds on those terms is fraught with the danger of setting up a battle for power on the streets. Still, while the coalition parties profess their firm belief that the court will rule in their favor, they appear to have begun planning an election campaign — even maneuvering over the composition of the Electoral Commission.

If a poll goes ahead with both sides going to the hustings, the biggest threat facing Yushchenko is the fragility of his motley Orange forces. It was divisions inside his alliance that cost him control of parliament, and could do so again. Despite the turmoil, Ukraine can nonetheless claim a rare achievement for a former Soviet republic: Settling its political conflicts in the courts and at the polls.