As President Petro Poroshenko prepares to leave office, calls for limitations to be placed on presidential power are rising, with several lawmakers even taking action.
On April 21, Volodymyr Zelenskiy won the Ukrainian presidency, taking more than 73 percent of the vote in the second round of the presidential election. A comedic actor and businessman by profession, Zelenskiy is often described as having zero political background. His supporters see that as a positive, but, to his opponents, it is a fatal flaw.
Because the soon-to-be president lacks both experience and a faction in parliament, lawmakers have seized the opportunity to introduce draft laws that could substantially limit his powers – a move which has, unsurprisingly, been controversial.
The Kyiv Post spoke with lawmakers and experts to pin down what powers the president currently has, and what powers they think the next national leader should receive.
By law, the president has the power to propose and veto legislation. Officially, he does not have the power to influence the legislative process. In practice, however, a president who controls a parliamentary faction can indeed have an influence on the workings of the Verkhovna Rada.
Unlike Poroshenko, whose Bloc of Petro Poroshenko faction leads the ruling coalition together with the People’s Front party, Zelenskiy has no representatives in the Rada. His Servant of the People party is new and has no seats in parliament.
That said, Zelenskiy will have other important powers. The president has the authority to appoint members of the presidential administration, key members of the National Security and Defense Council and the chief of the General Staff. He also can appoint people to reserved spots on the governing board of the National Bank of Ukraine and the Constitutional Court.
The president also nominates other cabinet ministers and top officials — the defense minister, foreign minister, SBU security service chief, and general prosecutor — but these posts are subject to confirmation by parliament.
Ukraine’s semi-presidential system thus often requires both the agreement of the president and the prime minister or parliament to make a decision — for example, the president can appoint ambassadors and regional governors, but this requires the signature of the prime minister. Disagreements between the executive and legislative branches have frequently stalled the governance process.
The president can also appoint several other officials through presidential decrees – such as the head of National Commission for State Regulation of Energy and Public Utilities, which oversees energy prices and has a final say in allowing or disallowing the creation of state-owned monopolies.
However, these powers are largely based upon precedents set under former President Leonid Kuchma, and remain controversial. The constitutional court is currently investigating the legality of creating such a commission.
Finally, the president can choose an official representative in parliament, who is tasked with overseeing the work of legislature, something which is not written formally into the constitution.
But with Poroshenko leaving office and President-elect Zelenskiy not yet taking office, parliament is moving forward with an attempt to strip the new president of some of his powers.
During an April 24 briefing, Verkhovna Rada Speaker Andriy Parubiy said that five draft laws proposing to introduce impeachment into Ukrainian legislation have been registered in parliament.
Parubiy himself supports another draft law, proposed by lawmaker Oksana Syroid from the 25-member Samopomich faction that, if passed, would strip the president of most of his powers.
According to Syroid, the law is meant to bring the president’s powers back into line with those granted to him by the constitution. The law would strip the president of his ability to appoint members of the National Defense and Security Council and he would lose representatives in key institutions, including the parliament.
Oleh Bereziuk, the head of the Samopomich faction, told the Kyiv Post that the law is primarily designed to help the president, separating frequently overlapping responsibilities of the government and the head of state.
“It doesn’t strip the president of anything,” he said. “It puts his powers back into accord with the constitution.”
Samopomich’s main issue is the State Administration, created by presidential decree in 2000. It is responsible for covering the food, housing, and supply needs of the president, parliament, foreign delegations, and all state institutions.
The State Administration oversees over 60 state enterprises, including the Artek children’s recreational camp, the Zhytomyr alcohol factory, and the Chayka state enterprise, which is responsible for producing dairy and meat products for members of the presidential administration.
Samopomich states that the president shouldn’t have influence over the production of dairy products or the regulation of household gas prices through the State Energy and Utilities Commission.
But Yegor Sobolev, who recently left the Samopomich party but still remains the faction’s deputy head in parliament, said that if the draft law were to be put to the vote, he would vote against it.
“We shouldn’t limit the president’s authority as commander-in-chief,” Sobolev said, adding that it might pave the way for additional corruption.
Anatoly Grytsenko – a former defense minister who came fifth in the first round of Ukraine’s presidential elections and whose candidacy was backed by the Samopomich party – said in a Facebook post that Syroid’s draft law was harmful to the country.
“It is unacceptable to strip the president of his constitutional powers, passing the right to appoint personnel to the defense ministry, SBU, foreign intelligence and (National Security and Defense Council) to parliament, the Cabinet of Ministers or the prime minister,” Grytsenko wrote.
Political analyst Serhiy Gaiday said that the proposed legislation is poorly timed and unpopular. The parliament, a broadly disliked body, and Samopomich, a party which has lost most of its electoral support, are trying to cancel the powers of a newly elected president who received over 73 percent of the vote.
“When the law targets the newly appointed president, it’s political trickery,” said Gaiday.
Yevhen Mahda, a political expert and lecturer at the Igor Sikorsky Kyiv Polytechnic Institute, said that he doesn’t understand how this law could be passed without amending the constitution.
Both Syroid and Bereziuk say that the law doesn’t strip the president of his constitutional powers, but rather takes away powers the office gained using presidential decrees.
The Zelesnskiy campaign doesn’t see it that way. On April 24, campaign manager Dmytro Razumkov told the 112 television channel that stripping the popularly elected new president of his powers resembles to a coup d’état.
But if stripping Zelenskiy of his powers of president may pose a challenge, a more realistic approach would be to introduce an impeachment procedure into Ukrainian law. That would allow parliament to terminate a president’s tenure if he or she engages in criminal activity.
Parubiy, who supports the law proposed by Syroid, rather than simply a bill on impeachment, said he is willing to put it to the vote as soon as possible.
However, Bereziuk said that Samopomich’s initiative is impossible to implement before Zelenskiy assumes power. He thinks that Zelenskiy himself should propose adding impeachment proceedings to Ukrainian law in order to guarantee that he won’t overstep his legal boundaries.
A day after the election, Razumkov said that the impeachment law would be one of the first proposed by Zelenskiy.
Gaiday told the Kyiv Post that he hopes that the office of the president will be completely abolished to eliminate the divided government currently common in Ukraine. That would turn the country into “parliamentary chancellor-type state,” Gaiday said.
In his Facebook post, Grytsenko expressed the opinion that the president should be stripped of his powers to appoint top ranking staff members in the state-enterprise UkrObronProm, which oversees the production of military equipment.
Grytsenko was referring to the defense corruption scandal, which erupted after on Feb. 25, after investigative journalists accused Oleh Hladkovskiy, deputy head of the NSDC and a long time friend and business partner of Poroshenko, in participating in a corruption scheme inspirited by his son.
The Nashi Groshi investigation also alleged that the top management of UkrOboronProm, as well as its head Pavlo Bukin, was aware of the scheme.
Both Bukin and Hladkovskiy denied the accusations.
Meanwhile, Magda says that he is currently satisfied with the scope of presidential powers. But he stressed that he is not a lawmaker: they might think otherwise.
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