Even after the Constitution is amended the president will remain the most influential state executiveOf fundamental importance to the head of state will be a strong pro-presidential majority in the parliamentA coalition government will become a restricting factor for the premier
Any major political process is inseparable from mythmaking, and the ongoing political reform is no exception. Ever since Pres. Kuchma announced it on August 24, 2002, the reform of the system of power has been accompanied by emotionally charged and irrational phantoms that may be classed as political myths.
Consider the many interpretations of the implications of the political reform. While its authors have declared their intent to reform the system of power in Ukraine after the European fashion, the opposition continues to repeat tirelessly that the reform is a mere facelift that will not change the existing regime much. Some observers have called the political reform a stratagem, while others view it as a huge publicity stunt designed to seize the strategic initiative from the opposition. Others still believe that those in power have launched it to split the opposition. Moreover, most observers were unanimous that the bill on the Constitutional reform of the system of power had no chances of passing the parliament. It has transpired, however, that this seemingly unfeasible reform can be implemented against all odds. As was to be expected, this has given rise to mythmaking.
The first myth can be called the anticipation of skullduggery. The majority’s decision to reject election of the president by the lawmakers was immediately interpreted as a subtle maneuver, say, this clause has been rejected, but it will return disguised in the final vote on Bill No. 4105. Granted, there is always a possibility that the existing arrangements could be violated, which has often happened in Ukrainian politics before. However, such skullduggery would jeopardize the reform as a whole.
The second myth is that as a result of the Constitutional reform major levers of power will pass to the prime minister, while the president’s status will be reduced drastically. Interestingly, it is actively circulated by both the far-right opposition and certain media outlets close to those in power.
WHO IS MORE INFLUENTIAL?
Why do I dismiss as a myth the statement to the effect that the planned Constitutional amendments will create a model whereby the president will be weak as opposed to a strong premier?
Understandably, if the Constitutional reform is implemented a new president will not have as extensive influence as that of the incumbent president. But neither will he become a British queen or a formal head of state without any real levers of influencing the executive or legislature. To see that this is in fact so, compare the powers of Ukraine’s incumbent president and those he will retain if Bill No. 4105 is approved.
The president’s powers will suffer most as a result of the restriction of his influence on the formation and decisions of the executive. Specifically, the head of state will lose the right to appoint and dismiss the prime minister, cabinet ministers, heads of certain central executive bodies (the Antimonopoly Committee, State Property Fund, and State Television and Radio Broadcasting Committee), and chairmen of local state administrations. The president will not be able to dismiss the prosecutor general without lawmakers’ approval and will not be able to participate in appointing members of the NBU Board of Directors.
It is worth noting, however, that the president’s current influence on the executive bodies rests more on his right to dismiss their heads rather than appoint them, which is in most cases done with the approval of Verkhovna Rada or on a motion from the premier. The president will lose his right to dismiss as a result of the Constitutional reform.
Yet, even if the Constitution is amended, the president will remain the country’s most influential state executive. He will retain a vast array of powers and major levers of influencing both the executive and legislature. Although the president will lose some of his current powers, he will simultaneously receive some new ones. Thus, if the reform bill is voted into law, the president would be able to dissolve Verkhovna Rada on more occasions.
The government will remain accountable to the president. Accordingly, the president can bring a vote of no confidence against the cabinet. Much like it is now, in whatever it does the government will have to follow not only Ukraine’s Constitution and laws but also presidential decrees. Should any of the government decrees run counter to Ukraine’s Constitution and laws or presidential decrees, the chief executive is authorized to suspend such government decrees and simultaneously contest their validity in the Constitutional Court.
Even after the Constitution is amended, the president will have the biggest influence of all state leaders over the uniformed services and Foreign Ministry. The president will remain the Commander-in-Chief of Ukraine’s Armed Forces, head the National Security and Defense Council, and submit the candidacies of the defense minister, foreign minister, state security service (SBU) chief, and prosecutor general for lawmakers’ approval.
The president’s influence on legislative activity will not change significantly either. He will retain his right to initiate and veto bills approved by Verkhovna Rada, with the exception of Constitutional amendment bills. It is worth noting that presidents of common parliamentary republics do not have such powers.
The president will also retain his influence on the formation of the judiciary. Just like now, the president will make the first appointment of professional judges for a five-year period. Under the proposed Constitutional amendments, Ukraine’s president would appoint half of Ukraine’s Constitutional Court justices, while now he appoints only a third.
What will the functional and political relationship between the president and premier be like under the new conditions? After the Constitutional reform the political weight and real influence of the premier on the activity of the whole hierarchy of executive power will increase, but the premier will not become the key figure in the country’s leadership, a role currently reserved for the president.
ADVANTAGES FOR THE PREMIER
One can speak of a certain leveling of the premier’s status with that of the president. Yet the premier will not have the levers to influence the head of state. By contrast, the president will be able to influence the appointment of the premier (through preliminary consultations) and the formation of the cabinet and its decisions. It is a different matter that the president will be able to influence the Cabinet of Ministers not so much by means of administrative tools as by means of political instruments (using the NSDC as a parallel government, individual work with cabinet members, active cooperation with parliamentary factions: securing the support of pro-presidential factions, playing on the differences among the various political camps, and so forth). Thus, the president will exert indirect influence. The effectiveness of such influence will depend on how active and flexible the president will be in his actions.
The president’s position will be much more stable than that of the premier. Even if the impeachment procedure is initiated, it will be too difficult to force the head of state out of office. Meanwhile, the premier will constantly remain under the sword of Damocles, facing crises in the parliament and government, and will depend on the stability of the government-parliamentary coalition.
A coalition government will become the key restricting factor for the premier. Cabinet membership decisions and appointment of local administration heads will be made not by the premier himself but above all by leaders (including informal leaders) of the parties in the government-parliamentary coalition. And through his representatives in this coalition the president will be able either to influence cabinet decisions or keep a tight leash on the premier. In case of a confrontation between the president and premier, the former would be able to demand the dissolution of the cabinet and solve such conflicts using the procedures envisioned for crisis settlement in the government or parliament. If Constitutional amendments under Bill No. 4105 pass the parliament, it will be of utmost importance to the president to have an influential pro-presidential coalition in the parliament, which will be able to form its own government or limit the possibilities of a stable anti-presidential coalition forming in Verkhovna Rada. However, this problem is relevant for the president even under the Constitution in force.
Word has it that if the new president is an opposition candidate and if the Constitutional reform is implemented, he will inherit the current government hostile toward him. Such a scenario is quite likely. But under the new model of power distribution, the newly elected president will be able to form a politically loyal government. Although Bill No. 4105 does not provide for the dissolution of the cabinet with the election of a new president, the latter will be able to bring a vote of no confidence against the current premier or influence the formation of a new parliamentary coalition. The present parliamentary majority is a quite contradictory alliance, and should, for example, Viktor Yushchenko win the presidential elections, this majority could break up. The lingering habit of treating the president as the master of the country will also be at work, which will enable the new head of state to influence the formation of both a new government-parliamentary coalition and, accordingly, a new Cabinet of Ministers.
Incidentally, even if the Constitutional reform miscarries, Yushchenko himself will not be able to push through the parliament the candidacy of his premier without the support of at least half the factions and groups that are currently in the parliamentary majority. Put simply, in any case the new president will have to form his parliamentary majority in Verkhovna Rada.
FINE TUNING THE NEW SYSTEM
The form of government that could evolve in Ukraine as a result of the Constitutional reform would meet the standards of a premier-presidential republic and would lie midway between the French and Polish models of distribution of power among the president, government, and parliament.
The premier-presidential form of government is more complex and conflict-prone than the purely presidential or parliamentary forms of government. It makes it impossible to effect rapid political changes. Yet, compared to the current situation, the premier-presidential form of government is more democratic, as it rules out authoritarian usurpation of power by either the president or premier.
The Constitutional reform is paradoxical in that the representatives of those in power seek insurance against the winner-takes-all scenario in an attempt to secure their interests in the future, thereby fostering the institutional democratization of the system of power. Moreover, the authors of the political reform try to insure themselves not only against the probable “victor” Yushchenko but also against the quite probable “victor” Yanukovych or any other dark horse. Instead of concentrating power in the hands of one individual, which naturally leads to authoritarian tendencies, the reform envisions a quite equal distribution of power among several decision-making centers. Thus, the statement to the effect that the Constitutional reform serves to establish an authoritarian regime — which is another political myth with a clearly propagandistic groundwork — could not be farther from the truth.
Now we may only theorize about what kind of relationship will form between the president and premier after the Constitutional reform. Much will depend not on the formal set of powers but on the psychological factor of who becomes the next president or premier. A psychologically stronger politician who flexibly cooperates with a broad range of political forces will score an undisputed victory in this informal competition for supremacy on Ukraine’s political Olympus.
In any case, whether the Constitutional reform is implemented or not, after the presidential elections the country will embark on a transition period that will last until the parliamentary elections. If the reform is implemented, this period will see the institutional fine-tuning of the mechanisms of power distribution and cooperation among the government, president, and parliament. The political forces will adapt to the new system of power and prepare for the final battle in the parliamentary elections.
But even if the political reform miscarries, the newly elected president will inevitably undergo a certain period of adaptation, attempting to bring under his control both the executive and legislature. If the new president represents the opposition, he will face a parliament in which he will not have a majority to rely upon. If the new president represents those in power, he will have to cooperate with a parliament infected with the idea of a coalition government accountable to the majority. In any case, the search for a new model of relations among the president, government, and parliament will continue.
Political myths can be pretty, interesting, and even advantageous, especially to those who spread them and to those who readily believe them. Yet strategic decisions are better made based on rational thinking, especially when it comes to reforming the system of power.