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Ukraine Parliament Votes to Keep Popular Election of President - 2004-02-03

Ukraine's parliament has voted to keep the current system of electing the president by popular vote. The decision was a blow to President Leonid Kuchma and his supporters, who want the legislature to pick the president.

The 450-member parliament, by a narrow margin, overturned a measure approved in December that would have allowed the legislature to elect the president, starting in 2006. The vote followed a rowdy session that included fist fights among deputies across the political spectrum.

Critics had accused President Kuchma of trying to push through the controversial measure in the hope of remaining in power. The presidential election is scheduled for October.

The president had already secured a constitutional court decision that he could run for a third term, despite a two-term limit under the constitution. President Kuchma himself has denied he plans to run again in the October election. Opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko is the current front-runner.

President Kuchma's political maneuvering ahead of the presidential ballot has raised concern in Europe. The Council of Europe, an institution acting as the guardian of democracy in Europe, has even threatened to suspend Ukraine's membership, if it fails to hold free and fair elections.

President Kuchma's two terms in office were often marred by controversy. Two years ago, his government was accused of illegally selling weapons to Iraq. Earlier, at home, he was accused of involvement in the murder of an opposition reporter. The president has denied all the allegations.