Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko's decree to dissolve parliament came into force Tuesday and Ukraine's prime minister immediately challenged what he called a "fatal error" in the courts.
The pro-Western president has been locked in a struggle for power and authority with Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich since appointing him last August.
Yushchenko said he signed the decree on Monday to "preserve the state". The two men met later Tuesday. "The main issue discussed at the meeting was to ensure strict implementation of the decree on an early election," the president's press service said.
"Viktor Yushchenko, as commander-in-chief of Ukraine's armed forces, also stressed he would allow no use of force in the country." Yanukovich told supporters a solution to the dispute would come only through negotiation.
The decree published in the official gazette set a parliamentary election for May 27. Even if all sides agree to take part, it could produce more of the stalemate that has afflicted Ukraine since a parliamentary poll just over a year ago.
In parliament, where Yanukovich is backed by a three-party coalition, 53 members asked the Constitutional Court to strike out the decree. The prime minister's Regions Party asked the court to work round the clock to establish clarity.
Yanukovich called the decree a "fatal error" and said his government would function "without impediment". "Change is a natural thing in society but there exists a constitution as a legal framework for carrying it out," he told the chamber.
There was no visible sign of political tension in the streets of central Kiev. The hryvnia currency was stable although Ukraine's sovereign dollar bonds sold off on the news.
The tough stances adopted by both sides raised political tensions 2-1/2 years after the "Orange Revolution" which forced out a political establishment in power for years.
Eight months of sniping between the two rivals burst into the open last week when the president accused Yanukovich of illegally expanding his coalition majority by poaching Yushchenko's supporters.
The immediate prospect was that Yanukovich might refuse to accept the dissolution, tipping the country of 47 million into a constitutional crisis and raising the possibility of clashes in the streets between rival protesters.
One of the premier's lieutenants suggested holding "round table" discussions with the participation of foreign experts akin to the mediation which helped resolve the 2004 standoff.
In a Kiev park, 2,000 backers of Yanukovich gathered in a tent camp festooned with banners, a smaller version of street gatherings that swept Yushchenko to power. Many protesters had journeyed from the premier's strongholds in eastern Ukraine.
Yushchenko beat Yanukovich in the re-run of the allegedly rigged 2004 election that triggered the "Orange Revolution" protests. His powers have been cut since by constitutional change and his popularity has sunk after liberals accused him of indecision.
In Moscow, the Russian Foreign Ministry urged politicians to show restraint, as did Germany in the name of the European Union presidency.
US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack urged political leaders "to take full responsibility for their supporters' actions and to maintain calm".
(China Daily via agencies April 4, 2007)