(Reuters) – Allies of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich failed on Saturday in a first attempt to push through changes to the constitution that could significantly boost his political powers in the ex-Soviet republic.
Parliament launched a debate on Friday on a proposal by Yanukovich’s Regions Party that would allow for a referendum to decide whether curbs on presidential powers, agreed in 2004, should be lifted.
Political commentators said allies of Yanukovich, who was elected last February after a bitter political campaign against former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, sought particularly to boost presidential authority over the government.
At the moment, the president can propose candidates only for foreign and defense ministers — and even they have to be accepted by parliament.
If the curbs were lifted, commentators said Yanukovich would effectively rule in a presidential system similar to that of many other former Soviet states, including Russia, with the right to name government ministers.
But when parliament met on Saturday in exceptional session several parties voiced opposition to agreeing on a referendum now. They included the Communists and the Lytvyn bloc which are part of the majority underpinning Yanukovich’s government.
Further debate on proposal was put off until September.
The present limits on presidential powers were imposed in 2004 when the pro-Western Viktor Yushchenko came to power after the “Orange Revolution” street demonstrations, and partly contributed to his downfall.
Yushchenko’s five years in power were marked by constant confrontation with parliament and with Tymoshenko, his prime minister, and he crashed to a humiliating first-round defeat when he sought re-election this year.
Since he came to power with the financial backing of key business figures, Yanukovich has gradually tightened his grip in the country, appointed close allies to key positions in the power structure and tilted foreign policy back toward Ukraine’s old Soviet master, Russia.
But he said last month that the limits on the power of the presidency had produced a crisis of authority and he urged a change in the constitution.
(Reporting by Pavel Polityuk; Writing by Richard Balmforth; Editing by Maria Golovnina)