updated 3/31/2007 9:06:38 PM ET 2007-04-01T01:06:38

Tens of thousands of demonstrators called on Ukraine’s president Saturday to defeat a challenge from the rival prime minister by dissolving parliament and calling new elections, a move that could throw the ex-Soviet republic into crisis.

A smaller rally supported the prime minister.

President Viktor Yushchenko accused Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych of trying to usurp power by recruiting lawmakers allied with the president. Yushchenko told a party conference that if the situation did not change, “I will sign the decree to dissolve parliament.”

The party passed a resolution appealing to the president to dissolve parliament, and more than 70,000 supporters waving flags and banners rallied on Kiev’s Independence Square, the heart of the 2004 Orange Revolution mass protests that ushered Yushchenko into power. Some 20,000 supporters of Yanukovych protested in a nearby square.

Dissolving parliament could spark a crisis, particularly if Yanukovych’s coalition — which denies Yushchenko’s allegations and argues there is no constitutional basis to dissolve parliament — refuses to abide by the president’s decision.

Political defection sparked uprising
But if Yushchenko backs down, he could find himself politically weakened and isolated.

“It is not the right of the president (to dissolve parliament), it is his obligation,” said former Orange Revolution leader Yulia Tymoshenko, who called the demonstrators to Independence Square to press for the dissolution of parliament.

The crowd chanted: “Together we will win!”

The standoff arose after 11 lawmakers allied with the president defected to Yanukovych’s coalition, in violation of a new law that compels lawmakers to remain with the party they belonged to during the election.

Yanukovych now has the support 260 lawmakers in the 450-seat house, and his party has suggested they will soon reach 300 — enough to overturn presidential vetoes and make changes to the constitution.

Police in bullet-resistant vests manned barricades separating the rival rallies, and asked people passing from one square to another to put away political flags and scarves.

“I’m here to support Yanukovych. He’s a true patriot and we’ve seen success,” said retiree Valentine Ivanenko, 69. “Pensions have gone up. Industry is working. Investments have been made in agriculture. We need our government to keep working not to be thrown back into elections.”

Constitutional claims
Yushchenko accused Yanukovych’s parliamentary majority of violating the constitution by taking away presidential powers and failing to fulfill a unity agreement that Yanukovych signed before Yushchenko agreed to accept him as premier. Yushchenko also accused the coalition of politicizing the country’s police force, carrying out murky privatizations, and failing to act on his proposals.

“It shows that there is no political will and desire to support stability,” Yushchenko said.

Viktor Tykhonov, a lawmaker from Yanukovych’s party, accused Yushchenko of trying to dictate his will to lawmakers, and defended the movement of lawmakers between factions “as a natural process,” Ukraine’s Interfax news agency reported.

Yushchenko came to power after hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians flooded onto Independence Square to protest Yanukovych’s fraud-marred presidential victory in 2004.

The Supreme Court overturned Yanukovych’s victory and called new elections, which Yushchenko won.

The Ukrainian president’s face is still pockmarked from the mysterious case of dioxin poisoning he suffered during the race.

Yanukovych rebounded in last year’s parliamentary elections, capitalizing on widespread disappointment in the slow pace of reforms and divisions between the Orange Revolution team.

Yanukovych’s party put together a majority coalition, and Yanukovych returned as premier. The two rivals started feuding almost immediately, and Yanukovych has increasingly moved to sideline the president.

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