Parliament has no confidence in government; revote possible

Thursday, December 2, 2004

KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukraine's opposition scored key victories Wednesday in its bid to scrap a disputed presidential election as parliament voted no confidence in the government and European-brokered talks provided momentum toward holding a new ballot.

Opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko urged throngs of supporters to stay on the streets until plans for what he demanded -- a rerun of the Nov. 21 runoff with Kremlin-backed Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych -- are worked out. He said such a vote could be held as early as Dec. 19.

But President Leonid Kuchma, who backed Yanukovych, instead proposed an entirely new election, which would allow his Russian-allied government to field a more attractive candidate as it scrambles to stay in power with his 10 years in office running out.

European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana, who mediated talks Wednesday between Yuschenko and Yanukovych, also suggested a new vote but didn't indicate whether it would be a repeat of the runoff or a new election. Kuchma, who earlier in the day called the idea of a new runoff "a farce," also left the issue unclear.

The two candidates signed a deal to set up a group of lawyers to work out proposals for the "completion of the election," a reference to drafting legislation for a settlement of the dispute. The statement also urged protesters to lift their siege of official buildings that have paralyzed the government's work -- but Yushchenko urged his backers to press ahead with their street protests.

"Our ranks mustn't shrink," Yushchenko told tens of thousands of his supporters who gathered on Kiev's central Independence Square for the 11th straight night since the election commission declared his rival the winner in a vote he says was stolen. "We mustn't leave until we have a revote date firmly set."

Hours after the deal was signed, throngs of Yushchenko's supporters continued to besiege the Cabinet and the presidential administration buildings, while thousands clad in his orange campaign colors crammed the central square under fireworks and listened to rock bands in a raucous celebration.

Yushchenko said he expected the Supreme Court to deliver a ruling today on his campaign's appeal to invalidate the runoff result -- based on claims of widespread violations across Yanukovych's eastern and southern strongholds.

Yanukovych has tried to counterattack by launching his own appeal contesting the vote results in pro-Yushchenko western provinces and the capital, but it wasn't immediately clear when the court would address it.

The opposition has asked the court to declare Yushchenko the winner based on his narrow edge in the election's first round, on Oct. 31. But his call for a revote suggested he does not believe the court would pronounce him the winner.

Yushchenko, Yanukovych and other participants in the talks in the ornate Mariinsky Palace presidential residence emphasized the need to prevent any actions that could split the country. Yanukovych's supporters in the east have called for regional autonomy, sparking fears of Ukraine's breakup.

Participants in the talks emphasized the need to avoid the use of force and said the next round of talks would be held after the Supreme Court's ruling.

The negotiations -- shepherded by Solana, Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski and other European leaders -- came after Ukraine's parliament passed a no-confidence measure in Yanukovych's government with 229 votes, just three more than necessary in Ukraine's 450-seat Verkhovna Rada.

A no-confidence vote automatically triggers the resignation of the government, which the president must accept -- though he can allow it to continue to exercise its powers for up to 60 days, until a new Cabinet is formed.

However, many experts questioned the constitutionality of the vote, and Yanukovych called it a "political move that contradicted the law." He refused to recognize it and said he would keep working.

Observers speculated that Yanukovych's ex-campaign chief Serhiy Tyhypko could be Kuchma's choice in a new election. Tyhypko strongly pushed for a new election Wednesday, but wouldn't say whether he would run.

The vague phrasing of the compromise statement indicated the battle over how a new vote would be held was still raging.

Solana told reporters that changes in the Ukrainian laws would be required to stage a new vote, and he appeared to signal his support for Yushchenko's push for a runoff revote.

"I think for the next election is very important we have both candidates in the vote," he said, adding that it might take a month to set a new date.

Yushchenko has led the opposition for years and was long seen as its candidate in a country where millions are yearning for change after Kuchma's 10-year rule. Kuchma anointed Yanukovych as his favored successor last spring, hoping his prominence as prime minister would attract votes.

In the first round of voting, Yushchenko edged Yanukovych by less than a percentage point, but fell short of the majority needed to avoid a runoff.

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