KIEV (Reuters) - Protests from a re-energized Ukrainian opposition at a boisterous opening session of a new parliament on Wednesday pushed back the key vote to endorse Mykola Azarov for a new term as prime minister.
The vote, now expected to take place on Thursday, will be the first test of support that President Viktor Yanukovich, who re-nominated Azarov, commands in the new chamber.
Yanukovich’s pro-business Party of the Regions and their allies enjoyed a strong majority in the last parliament, which allowed them to push through changes to the electoral law and a law on use of the Russian language that sparked street protests.
But though it is still the biggest single party, it lost seats in the October 28 election.
Most analysts said they believed horse-trading would ensure enough support from independents and others to secure the required 226 or more seats. But the new opposition line-up, whose leaders have ruled out any coalition with the Regions Party, quickly showed their teeth.
Deputies from the three main opposition parties encircled the speaker’s rostrum, effectively blocking activation of the electronic system which would allow deputies to vote on Azarov’s nomination and the appointment of parliamentary officials.
After a prolonged stand-off, both sides left the chamber for the night, agreeing to resume the session on Thursday, according to the Regions Party. Separately, the government put off a meeting scheduled for Thursday morning.
Deputies from the Batkivshchyna (Fatherland) bloc, whose leader is jailed former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, appeared in the chamber wearing black sweaters bearing her portrait and stickers calling for political prisoners to be freed.
When the speaker formally announced that Azarov and his government were present, the chamber echoed to opposition cries of “Hanba! Hanba!” (Shame!)
Two elected deputies - a father and son - were prevented from taking the collective oath and physically ejected from the chamber by opposition deputies who accused them of defecting to the ruling coalition.
New opposition figures who took the oath included world heavyweight boxing champion Vitaly Klitschko, who heads the UDAR (Punch) party, and Oleh Tyahnybok, leader of the Svoboda far-right nationalists who did surprisingly well in the poll.
Former economy minister Arseny Yatsenyuk headed the Batkivshchyna (Fatherland) bloc in Tymoshenko’s absence.
Outside parliament, Svoboda deputies cut down part of a perimeter fence with a chainsaw and broke down a door in what they called a protest against parliament’s alienation from the people.
Azarov is a staid, 64-year-old conservative who has been prime minister since Yanukovich was elected in February 2010.
The Regions won 185 seats on October 28 - slightly fewer than in the previous election.
But on Wednesday, boosted by deputies elected as independents, they registered a 210-strong faction.
This means that, together with 33 Communists that the party expects to vote with it, the Regions will have a comfortable 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 riskier alternatives.
The export-oriented economy might be facing a bruising year next year with markets shrinking, while Yanukovich himself is gearing up to run for a second term as president in 2015.
An early challenge for Azarov will be to negotiate a new bailout program with the International Monetary Fund to follow a $15 billion package suspended in early 2011. An IMF mission is due to visit Kiev in January to discuss a new standby arrangement.
Opposition parties have welded together an action program in which they have threatened Yanukovich with impeachment and vowed to work to free Tymoshenko, who was jailed more than a year ago for alleged abuse of office while prime minister.
She has denied wrongdoing and says she is the victim of a political vendetta by Yanukovich. But there are also rivalries among the leaders of the opposition parties, which could endanger any unity of purpose in the long run.
Additional reporting by Pavel Polityuk and Olzhas Auyezov; Writing by Richard Balmforth, edited by Richard Meares