Azarov vote will be first test for Ukraine ruling party

New parliament holds opening session to decide on new leaders in Ukraine.

European Union. Picture: AFP/Philippe Huguen

KIEV - A vote on the nomination of Mykola Azarov for prime minister will be the first test of the cohesion of political forces underpinning Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich.

Yanukovich's pro-business Party of the Regions enjoyed a strong majority with allies in the last parliament which allowed it to ram through key legislation.

Changes to electoral law, successive budgets and a law on the use of the Russian language triggered street protests in the previous dispensation.

But though it is still the biggest single party, it lost seats in the October 28 election.

And though most analysts think horse-trading will bring it enough support from independents and others for a majority of 226 or more seats in key votes, it nonetheless faces a revitalised opposition whose leaders have ruled out any coalition with the Regions.

New opposition faces taking the oath on Wednesday will include world heavyweight boxing champion Vitaly Klitschko, who heads the UDAR (Punch) party, and Oleh Tyahnybok, leader of the Svoboda far-right nationalists who made a surprisingly strong showing in the October poll.

Former economy minister Arseny Yatsenyuk heads the Batkivshchyna (Fatherland) bloc in the absence of imprisoned former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko.

After parliament appoints a new speaker on Wednesday, attention will swing to the vote on Azarov, a staid 64-year-old conservative who has been prime minister since Yanukovich was elected in February 2010 and whom Yanukovich tapped for a second term on Sunday.

The Regions hold 185 seats in parliament following the election - slightly down on representation in the old parliament.

But its faction leaders have expressed confidence they can enlist enough support from among the 40 or so "independents" as well as from communist ranks to secure the needed 225 plus majority in the 450-seat chamber.

By nominating Azarov for a second term as prime minister, Yanukovich opted to keep a predictable loyalist by his side rather than back other more risky variants.

The economy might be facing a bruising year next year while Yanukovich himself is gearing to run for a second term as president in 2015.

An early challenge for Azarov will be to negotiate a new bailout programme from the International Monetary Fund to follow a $15 billion package which was suspended in early 2011.