Presidents and Prime Ministers in Semi-presidential Ukraine

Ukraine held presidential elections exactly one month ago on 25 May 2014. Avoiding the need for a runoff, Petro Poroshenko won the presidency outright with 54.7% of the vote. The next day, the President-elect announced that Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk would retain his position, stating that he did not see any grounds for dismissing Yatsenyuk from his post and that he hoped for effective cooperation with the head of government.

Poroshenko and Yatsenyuk

President of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko with Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk (Photo: UNIAN)

Arseniy Yatsenyuk was elected Prime Minister on 27 February in the middle of the political crisis in Ukraine, winning the support of 371 of the 450 members of parliament. Despite his young age (40), he already boasts an impressive track-record. He served as economy and foreign minister as well as parliamentary speaker during the presidency of Viktor Yushchenko (2005-2010). He was also offered the position of Prime Minister by the former president Viktor Yanukovych in 2010, but he declined it. Throughout the anti-government protests that began in November 2013, Yatsenyuk was a constant fixture on Maidan, the central square in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, where the largest demonstrations took place.

There is no requirement in the Ukrainian constitution that the Prime Minister be dismissed upon the inauguration of a new president. However, all former presidents of Ukraine, in one way or another, have replaced the Prime Ministers when they took office. Given Ukraine’s recent history, the relationship between the president and prime minister is a crucial one and it may either break or make the presidency.

For instance, former allies and leaders of the Orange revolution, Viktor Yushchenko and Yulia Tymoshenko, spent the majority of their mandates in a political gridlock. In 2008, President Yushenko even accused his then Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko of treason and ended up testifying against his former ally during her trial for abuse of power in 2011. Many have argued that Tymoshenko’s presidential ambition was one of the main reasons for the animosity between the two (she later ran in both the 2010 and 2014 presidential elections). Their long-term conflict is frequently blamed for derailing Yushchenko’s presidency and bringing the country to the brink of economic collapse.

Currently, Ukraine operates under the premier-presidential constitution, similar to the one that was in place during most of Yushchenko and Tymoshenko’s tenures. Ukraine has always been uneasy about its executive-legislative relations and spent the last decade playing a tug-of-war with the powers of the president and the parliament. The Ukrainian constitution has been changed three times since its adoption in 1996 (in 2004, 2010, and 2014), going back and forth on how powerful the president will be vis-à-vis the parliament.

The current president is only two and a half weeks into his term. Thus, it is hard to evaluate his relationship with the prime minister. So far, however, both seem to agree on a number of important issues. Both are strong advocates of Ukraine’s membership in the European Union. Both men are also strong supporters of decentralization of Ukraine and delegating more powers to the regions. In fact, in a televised address just last week the President proposed constitutional amendments to this effect as a part of his peace plan. Yatsenyuk did not himself run for presidency in the last election, although his party backed Yulia Tymoshenko. For his part, Poroshenko seems to have no intention of altering the balance of power between the president and the prime minister. During the plenary session of Parliament last week, he stated that he was committed to the premier-presidential system and that the current constitution gave him enough powers to fulfill his pre-electoral promises to the Ukrainian people.

President Poroshenko has no party of his own. He is backed by Kyiv Major Vitali Klitschko, whose party holds less than 10% of seats in parliament. Constitutionally, his role is limited to representing the country in international affairs, administering foreign policy and overseeing national security and defense.[1] The President is in a difficult position. His relationship with the Prime Minister, whose party, Batkivshchyna (Fatherland), is currently the largest block in parliament with 85 seats, may prove crucial in order to push through the anti-corruption, economic and decentralization reforms that Ukraine desperately needs.

[1] See Constitution of Ukraine, 21 February 2014, art. 106.

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