Ukraine Plebiscite Bolsters Kuchma

KIEV -- Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma won a landslide victory in a controversial weekend referendum on expanding his powers over parliament.

The Central Election Commission said on its Internet site that with 100 percent of ballots counted, each of the four questions put to voters in the plebiscite had mustered more than 80 percent backing.

It said turnout was almost 79 percent, easily passing the 50 percent needed to make the poll valid.

Opposition parties have slammed the vote as an attempt to put parliament into Kuchma's pocket and stifle the country's democracy, while rights watchdog the Council of Europe also objected to the referendum.

But Kuchma had insisted he needed to increase his influence over parliament, which he has accused of stalling reforms. Citizens hoping for a better life after nine years of post-Soviet turbulence seemed to have agreed.

"The high turnout confirms the fact that our citizens should and may resolve major issues of our state's future themselves, without the recommendations even of such respected organizations as the Council of Europe," Election Commission head Mykhailo Ryabets said late Sunday.

The referendum set up a round of wrangling between Kuchma and parliament, as the chamber has the final word in approving the constitutional changes.

On the questions put to voters, the commission said 81 percent of voters had supported forming a two-chamber legislature to represent regional interests while 89 percent favored an end to deputies' immunity from prosecution.

Just over 90 percent wanted the number of deputies cut to 300 from 450, and 84 percent agreed the president could dismiss the assembly if it did not pass a budget or form a majority.

The Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly, a body with few powers but much moral authority, said this month the vote was unconstitutional.

It threatened to suspend Ukraine unless new referendum legislation was passed.

Ukraine's Constitutional Court ruled it admissible, and the European Union and United States said the ballot should be constitutional but is an internal affair.