On the surface, proposed constitutional amendments in Armenia would transform the country’s political system from a presidential to a parliamentary republic. But many Armenians worry that that changes could cement incumbent authorities’ grip on power.
Government leaders hotly deny that ulterior motives prompted them to propose the amendments last April. Nevertheless, the December 6 referendum to determine the amendments’ fate has turned into a debate over Armenia’s political identity.
The amendments are wide-ranging, but most public discussion has focused on those that would alter the political system. Under the proposed changes, the party that controls a parliamentary majority would form the government; at present, the Republican Party of Armenia (RPA) enjoys a comfortable majority. “If no stable parliamentary majority is formed as a result of an election or through building of a political coalition, a second round of election may be held,” the amendments specify.
The amendments also call for the number of parliamentary seats to be reduced from 131 at present to 101. The party that controls a majority would propose the prime minister, who would have expanded executive powers and be the supreme commander of the armed forces.
The most significant changes would concern the presidency. The presidential term would be extended to seven years from its current five, but the chief executive would be limited to only one term, instead of the existing two-term limitation. The president has been directly elected by the population, but under the changes, the chief executive would be largely a figurehead with no veto authority, selected by parliament. In addition, anyone elected as president could not be formally affiliated with any political party.
Having been in politics for 25 years, leaving office in 2018 is not expected to come easy for Armenia’s incumbent, two-term president, 61-year-old Serzh Sargsyan. His Republican Party of Armenia has likewise held the reins of government since 2000. Currently, the party does not have to contend with a robust opposition rival.
The constitutional amendments, many analysts and opposition activists contend, would enable Sargsyan to retain a substantial amount of influence, given his position as RPA party leader, and make it much more difficult to dislodge the RPA from power.
Given Armenia’s recent political experience, most notably the deadly clashes that followed the controversial 2008 presidential election, many are concerned that eliminating the direct election of the president would dilute the general population’s ability to check the excessive accumulation of authority by an individual or political faction.
Sargsyan, who claims not to have any ambition to hold high political office in the future, insists the reforms are intended to place Armenia on more stable political ground.
“Human rights and the protection of freedom will be put on a higher level,” he predicted in an October 23 speech in Yerevan. “The branches of governmental institutions will be balanced, the responsibilities and authority of each of those institutions will be harmonized. The institutional role of the opposition will be empowered.”
In its latest opinion, the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission, which advises the intergovernmental human-rights body on constitutional law, deemed that drafts of the Armenian amendments on the whole provided “a very good basis for the constitutional reform.”
Some proposed amendments have received broad public backing in Armenia, including a provisions providing for term limits for judges and state compensation for victims of judicial error.
Nonetheless, suspicions persist about the political provisions.
Given the RPA’s 15 years in power, introducing a parliamentary system of government is “an attempt … to make all electoral processes manageable and predictable,” alleged civic activist Zara Hovhannisian, “by getting rid of the presidential office as an elected body,”
“We know that in Armenia the main mobilization [of voters] and a window for changes open during the presidential elections,” Hovhannisian added.
“The government’s reproduction will continue without interruption,” agreed 40-year-old economist Vahagn Martirosian at an October 30 rally in Yerevan against the amendments. “When people had one hope, presidential elections, they limit even that.”
Stepan Danielian, chairperson of the Partnership for Democracy center, noted that “the same kind of process has also occurred in other post-Soviet countries.”
Strongmen leaders, with little or no serious opposition, all run Armenia’s co-members in the Eurasian Economic Union — Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia.
In the Caucasus, the same party has ruled Armenia’s eastern neighbor, Azerbaijan, since 1996. To the north, in Georgia, a country that switched to a parliamentary system in 2012, allegations persist that the ruling coalition’s billionaire founder, ex-prime minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, remotely controls the government. An ongoing, controversial court case likewise is raising suspicions among some in Tbilisi that incumbent authorities there are trying to manipulate the judiciary in order to preserve their own power.
In Yerevan, Vardan Oskanian, a former foreign minister who is now a Sargsyan administration critic, speculated that, in Armenia’s case, the proposed changes come “not because it is necessary, but rather because for someone or for a group of individuals and/or political force, [the presidential system of government] is no longer convenient.”
The RPA’s parliamentary faction leader, Vahram Baghdasarian, dismissed the notion that personal motives are behind the changes. “With the constitutional changes, Serzh Sargsyan does not pursue any objectives related to himself,” Baghdasarian insisted to EurasiaNet.org. “The changes are planned solely for the prosperous future of the country.”
But political analyst Stepan Grigorian, head of the non-profit Armenian Analytical Center on Globalization and Regional Cooperation, cites Armenia’s record of trouble with corruption, alleged election fraud and government-linked business monopolies. “We have a problem with applying laws,” said Grigorian. “We must think about how to apply laws.”
It was only last month that Sargsyan set the date for the referendum in early December. With scores of articles affected, a group of 60 civil-society organizations stated in October that voters needed more time to study and digest the proposed changes in order to cast an informed vote. The organizations, including the Open Society Foundation Armenia (OSFA), are conducting regional public information campaigns. [Editor’s note: OSFA is part of the Soros Foundations Network. EurasiaNet operates under the auspices of the New York-based Open Society Foundations, a separate entity in the network].
The changes will be adopted if more than half of Armenia’s roughly 2.5 million registered voters approve the measures. Turnout must be at least 33 percent.
Marianna Grigoryan is a freelance reporter based in Yerevan and editor of MediaLab.am.