Government denies broad allegations of massive fraud in referendum voting process
parliament in a nationwide referendum on April 16, but his opponents said the overwhelming approval of Kuchma's initiatives was the result of vote rigging and questionable methods used by state authorities to induce people to cast ballots.
The poll, whose results were expected, is unlikely to have any immediate implications since it only set the stage for a lengthy procedure of amending the Constitution, which is to be carried out by parliament.
Some analysts also warned of a potential political crisis in case lawmakers failed to implement the results.
Preliminary referendum statistics released by the Central Election Commission showed an unexpectedly high voter turnout of nearly 30 million, or 81.31 percent of eligible voters, as well as an overwhelming popular backing of all the four questions on the ballot.
'I can only be pleased with the results of the referendum,' Kuchma told reporters next day after the vote.
Kuchma, who won a second term in November after five tumultuous years in office during which he often sparred with parliament, ordered the referendum in January, labeling it crucial for achieving political stability and speeding the sluggish pace of market reforms.
The referendum asked citizens if they wanted to reduce the number of lawmakers from the current 450 to 300; add a second chamber to the legislature; strip deputies of immunity from prosecution; and allow the president to disband parliament if it fails to form a majority or approve the state budget within a stated period.
Each of the questions was approved by more than 80 percent of voters.
The surprisingly high voter turnout, which was higher than the 74 percent turnout in the presidential election, along with the tremendous support for Kuchma's proposals fuelled speculation among the president's opponents that the vote had been rigged.
'It would have been better to stop at 80 percent or 60 percent,' said Socialist Party leader Oleksandr Moroz, alleging that the Kuchma administration had planned results of the referendum beforehand.
Accounts received by the Post from voters and election officials in Kyiv and regions indicated that violations had taken place and in some instances were serious.
In one case, a member of the vote-counting commission at a polling station in Vinnytsia said only about 30 percent of voters cast ballots in her district, and the same was the case at many other city polls.
'After the polls closed, the city administration simply ordered us and other polling stations where the turnout was low to change the figure in the voting protocols to 80 percent,' said the official, who spoke under condition of anonymity.
In Kyiv, voters said officials from municipal housing departments, commonly known as ZHEKs, were sent to knock on the doors of every apartment in their area and hand residents ballots to vote.
While the few foreign observers had no immediate assessment of the referendum, the independent Committee of Voters of Ukraine said its more than 1,000 monitors throughout the country had noted 'significant interference by executive authorities in the voting procedure.'
However, election officials in Kyiv said most of the 69 reports of violations they received were either inconsistent or mentioned no significant breaches of law.
'I can declare that there are no grounds to call the results of the vote into question,' Central Election Commission Chairman Mykhailo Riabets told a press conference on April 17.
There was no immediate reaction to the poll from the Council of Europe, which had urged Kuchma several days before the poll to postpone it until parliament approves a law on implementing results of nationwide referendums, which Ukrainian legislation presently lacks.
The Council, which earlier had said the referendum would jeopardize the future of parliamentary democracy in Ukraine and had threatened to suspend the country's membership, softened its stance after the Ukrainian Constitutional Court struck down two of the referendum's original six questions late last month.
The deleted questions were those on expressing no confidence in the present legislature and on amending the Constitution through a referendum.
Kuchma, meanwhile, said he was ready to submit draft constitutional amendments based on the referendum for parliamentary approval.
'The popular will should not only be respected but implemented as well,' Kuchma said. 'If not, whom will those deputies represent then?'
Each amendment to the Constitution must be approved at two successive parliamentary sessions - first by a simple majority, and then two-thirds majority. The process can't begin until September, when the next parliamentary session is scheduled to start.
Lawmakers and analysts offered varied opinions on what of the proposed amendments parliament would approve, but agreed that their passage would be difficult.
'The issues are very problematic and a lot of time is needed to solve them,' political analyst Mykhailo Pohrebynsky told the Ukrainian News service.
Most members of the opposition slammed the referendum as Kuchma's attempt to subdue parliament.
'Time will show what the president's real intentions are,' Moroz said. 'But the people won't benefit from this at all.'
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