KIEV Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich on Tuesday signed a law enabling constitutional change via referendums instead of via parliament, in a move the opposition criticized as aimed at ensuring his own re-election in 2015.
Yanukovich's Regions party, which approved the new law this month, looks set to secure a slim majority in the 450-seat parliament in the wake of elections on October 28, a handful of results of which have yet to be finalized.
The party's support fell compared with 2007, however, putting Yanukovich's chances of re-election in 2015 in doubt.
To boost those chances, opposition leaders say Yanukovich may use the new law to amend the constitution - via a referendum and not via parliament - to scrap presidential elections and let parliament pick the head of state via a simple majority vote.
Some analysts said he may even use the law to push through policies that his party, backed by influential local industrialists, would not support.
"The president could only do this (change the way he is elected) in dire circumstances," said Mykhailo Pohrebinsky, an analyst at the Kiev Centre of Policy Research.
"This law provides a way to push through decisions which are not supported by the elite but supported by the population. One issue that can be realistically put up for referendum is the question of (joining the Russia-led) Customs Union."
Russia has long urged Ukraine to join Belarus and Kazakhstan in its post-Soviet trade bloc but Kiev, which is instead seeking a free trade agreement with the European Union, has repeatedly refused.
The new law says a referendum must be held if signatures are gathered from at least 3 million people from different regions of the country and then called by the president or parliament.
It is unclear whether the public would approve a motion to give parliament the right to pick the president, however.
Prior to the new law, amendments to the constitution had to be approved via a two-thirds majority in the house, which Yanukovich's Regions party is unlikely to win.
The opposition has said it will challenge the new law in the constitutional court.
Yanukovich quickly consolidated power after becoming president in 2010, installing loyal allies in key positions and successfully challenging an earlier constitutional reform in order to lessen his dependence on parliament.
His re-election chances have been hurt as Ukraine's economy, which had been growing since early 2010, shrank 1.3 percent in year-on-year terms in the third quarter of this year as steel exports fell.
In a move condemned by the West, a local court last year sentenced his main opponent, former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, to seven years in prison on charges of abuse of office.
(Reporting by Olzhas Auyezov; Editing by Hugh Lawson)