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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Ukraine Votes to Change Constitution

ReutersUkrainian legislators scuffling as the opposition tries to block the vote Wednesday.
KIEV -- Parliamentary supporters of Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma rammed a constitutional reform bill through the national assembly on Wednesday despite raucous dissent from opponents who called it an excuse for dictatorship.

Opposition members charged the rostrum to block the vote on a proposal that would hand parliament the power to elect future Ukrainian presidents. But Speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn stole into a corner surrounded by Kuchma supporters and held an impromptu ballot, which passed the first reading of the bill.

A total of 276 members raised their hands in favor and broke into cheers as furious opponents clambered over desks and scuffled with pro-Kuchma colleagues trying to halt proceedings.

The opposition slammed the vote as illegitimate and a bald attempt by Kuchma to prolong his rule. The president, first elected in 1994, says he has no intention of running again next October after completing the constitutional limit of two terms.

"This is sheer falsification," said Viktor Yushchenko, a former prime minister and Ukraine's most popular politician. "There was not a single legitimate moment in this voting procedure."

Passage of the bill on first reading was the culmination of two days of rambunctious confrontation in which opposition deputies, some of whom had camped out in the chamber overnight, attempted to sabotage the vote using sirens and loudspeakers and by jamming coins into the electronic voting system.

If the bill is approved by a two-thirds vote next year to amend the constitution, a country-wide poll would be set next October for a president with reduced powers and a two-year term. Universal suffrage would be replaced by the election of Ukraine's next president by parliament in 2006.

Yushchenko and other Kuchma opponents say the president will exploit the changes to keep his job and the accompanying immunity from prosecution beyond October.

Some suggested Kuchma could use various levers of power to ensure an ally or business associate secures the nomination. Even if a rival took over the presidency, they say, his powers would be limited and a Kuchma ally could then take over in 2006.

Some lawmakers on Wednesday promised to appeal to the courts to overturn the results and to stage street protests.

Kuchma's allies insisted they acted under the rules. "We consider this bill as preliminarily approved. We will study it further and then in March there will be another vote," said Leonid Kravchuk, Ukraine's first post-Soviet president and leader of a pro-Kuchma party.

Kuchma, meanwhile, flew to Crimea on Wednesday to meet President Vladimir Putin and discuss the joint use of shipping routes in the Sea of Azov.