The political crisis in Ukraine on Wednesday looked set to drag on for weeks, as the constitutional court was pulled into a fight over the legality of early elections.
Viktor Yushchenko, president, insists parliamentary elections will go ahead on May 27, with or without the court’s backing. But his attempt to end political deadlock could lack legitimacy in the eyes of the world if he fails to win the court’s backing for his decree.
Although the president has the power to call elections, the Supreme Court played a crucial role in the 2004 Orange Revolution, when it overturned Viktor Yanukovich’s victory within a week of fraudulent polls.
This time round the pro-western Mr Yushchenko appears to have the loyalty of the military and secret service, but he is increasingly unpopular among voters, many of whom had hoped the former Soviet state could join the European Union and improve its meagre standard of living after the Orange Revolution.
Mr Yanukovich, who enjoys better ties with Moscow, on Wednesday vowed to boycott the the election campaign as rival demonstrators took to the streets of Kiev. However, street protests have been on a fraction of the scale of those in 2004.
Meanwhile the constitutional court floundered as Ivan Dombrovsky, the presiding judge, submitted his resignation.
Mr Yanukovich and allies of the president accused each other of attempting to exert political pressure on him. The court’s remaining 17 judges rejected his resignation but the development fuelled rising doubts over whether a lawful settlement was possible before the election.
A presidential official said that hearings had not yet started and “could take two months”.
Sergiy Vlasenko, a lawyer who represented Mr Yushchenko in the 2004 court battle, said the constitutional judges were “locked up in an impasse along party lines”. It is not likely that they will agree on a clear-cut interpretation of vague constitutional laws, he said.
Ukrainian politics was paralysed for months last year after an inconclusive election failed to give any of the leading parties a mandate.
According to opinion polls Mr Yanukovich’s Regions party and the opposition party of Yulia Tymoshenko were expected to garner the highest support in early elections.
As in last year’s election, Mr Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine party trails in third place.