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Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Back to Bicameralism

President Yushchenko delivered what’s supposed to be an annual address to parliament on the last day of March. (He was prevented from doing so last year by MPs loyal to erstwhile orange ally and prime minster Yulia Tymoshenko).

On paper, Yushchenko’s speech was very strong, but the delivery appeared strained on the tube. For starters, the president was not in friendly territory and many politicians rejoiced that this was “the last time” this person would ever address parliament. Opposition MPs hung caricatures of the president and provided a suitcase with an oversized one-way airline ticket from Kyiv to Washington. One of the caricatures depicted Yushchenko pointing like Uncle Sam and declaring “You poisoned the president!” (In the afternoon, MPs voted to re-create an ad hoc commission to investigate Yushchenko’s 2004 poisoning and re-appointed KGB veteran Volodymyr Sivkovych as its head.)

Yushchenko’s speech was received like a lame duck. Legislators did not stop babbling while the president reported on the state of the republic and outlined strategic national priorities. The shoom in the room turned into catcalls when Yushchenko announced that he thinks Ukraine needs a bicameral parliament, with an upper house Senat (3 senators per oblast, direct representation) and a lower house called Palata Deputativ (elected according to an open list proportional system). In order to eliminate the current dualism paralyzing the executive branch, Yushchenko’s model would have the Cabinet of Ministers fully subordinate to the Rada (instead of president and parliament) including in foreign affairs and policing that are currently in the presidential purview. The lower house would be fully responsible for forming and controlling the Cabinet of Ministers - another concession from the presidential office.

The idea of the upper house was immediately criticized across the board: it’ll be nothing else but a resort or reserve for oligarchs or lords who are able to spend their way into their senate seats. Yushchenko argued that bicameral models are standard practice in European countries like Czech Republic, France, Poland and Spain.

The idea of creating a bicameral parliament is not a new one for Ukraine. Back on April 16 2000, the majority of Ukrainians (over 80 percent) supported the idea of introducing a two-chamber legislative branch, lowering the number of parliament deputies from 450 to 300 and eliminating immunity from prosecution for MPs. The referendum, initiated by then President Kuchma, was called a farce by the opposition. Five months after the referendum, journalist Heorhiy Gongadze disappeared and Kuchma soon had other things to worry about than over constitutional reforms.
Kuchma would not revisit the issue in a big way until his Independence Day speech in 2002, when he single-handedly announced that Ukraine was going to change over to a “parliamentary-presidential” model of government (in place of the “presidential-parliamentary” model that Kuchma enjoyed during his decade-long rule).

That constitutional time bomb was laid by Kuchma’s new administration head Viktor Medvedchuk, socialist Oleksandr Moroz (supposedly Kuchma’s arch enemy) and commie Petro Symonenko, but did not go off until Yushchenko term as president. Kuchma never saw his presidential powers limited – some would claim circumcised, not quite castrated – the way Yushchenko did. According to the reforms, the president is supposed to be weak!

The fiercest critics of Yushchenko’s constitutional reform announcement point to its timing: “Hello!!! There’s a crisis in the country – factories shutting down, jobless rates rising, banks are holding back money (etc.)… and you’re wasting time rewriting the constitution?”
In fact, Yushchenko’s proposed changes to the Constitution have been on the table since 2006. I

Politicians of all stripes repeatedly sing the same song during the marathon political talk shows bombarding viewers nightly: the current proportional electoral system is in desperate need of fixing. But no party or bloc in the current Rada has actually done anything about. Despite promising voters they will lift immunity from prosecution for legislators, the lawmakers have failed to do so. MPs naturally want to hang on to their seats as long as possible. Plus parliament is so fractured that the task of gathering the more than 300 votes necessary in the 450 member chamber seems insurmountable. The rare occasions this Rada has seen more than 300 MPs vote together are when Tymoshenko’s BYuT and Yanukovych’s Party of the Regions combined forces to pass legislation and override presidential vetoes. Do they have a draft Constitution ready an alternative to the president’s vision? Now that’s question for Viktor Medvedchuk.

Sivkovych’s website (last updated December ’07):

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