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New constitution, old faces in Armenia

President Serzh Sargsyan is pushing for constitutional reform. Is it only about staying in power? на русском языке

 

David Petrosyan
31 July 2015

The last time that amendments were made to Armenia’s post-Soviet constitution of 1995, was the 2005 referendum. But on 15 July, Armenia’s Special Presidential Commission on Constitutional Reform published a draft list of further changes. Armenia, it seems, is to become a parliamentary republic, with reduced powers for the president and prime minister.

It was two years ago, on 4 September 2013, when President Serzh Sargsyan first mentioned making changes to the constitution. That is, the day after Sargsyan decided to enter the Customs Union (later transformed into the Eurasian Economic Union), putting an end to the three and a half years of negotiations with Brussels on DCFTA and European integration.

Indeed, Sargsyan’s 2008 and 2013 presidential campaigns made no mention of constitutional reforms. Where have they come from, and what are they going to do?

A tricky game

Prior to Sargsyan’s bringing up the idea of constitutional reform, Armenia’s leading experts in constitutional law believed that the most problematic sections of the country’s Constitution concerned local self-government and the legal system.

It didn’t occur to anyone that the President and the Special Commission might decide to change the country’s model of government from a presidential-parliamentary system to a parliamentary-presidential system.

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3 September 2013. Sargsyan and Vladimir Putin conclude Customs Union negotiations. (c) Alexei Druzhinin / VisualRIAN.

But the case for these reforms is yet to be truly made. Why should Armenia change its system of government?

The ‘reformers’ say that a parliamentary system will be ‘more democratic’. But the fact that presidential and presidential-parliamentary republics such as America and France can be convincing democracies, and that the list of parliamentary republics includes the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany or Salazar’s Portugal, is ignored. Forms of government do not decide once and for all whether a country is more or less democratic.

The government is playing a tricky game here. Several deputies from the majority Republican Party, which is headed by Sargsyan, have even stated that the opposition demanded these reforms. For the past 10 years, though, the opposition has demanded something different: that the Constitution be observed, that free and fair elections be held, and parliamentary elections on the basis of proportional representation.

This is understandable: the last national elections held in Armenia, which didn’t provoke serious criticism (and the results of which were accepted by public opinion), took place in 1999.

In elections since, the losing parties and a significant section of Armenian society have criticised both the electoral process and the results of elections, which have led to a series of protests and clashes. After the March 2008 presidential race, 10 people died in clashes with the police in central Yerevan. These deaths are yet to be fully investigated.

More democracy, not less

Reading through the proposed constitutional changes, it appears that Armenia will become a parliamentary republic—albeit a highly specific one.

For example, the draft document states that, in contrast to the current Constitution, whereby a leader receives a mandate to rule, in the future, that mandate will go to the political grouping, which forms around him or her.

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June 2015 saw protesters take to the streets in Yerevan over proposed electricity tariff hikes. (c) PAN Photo / Demotix.

Moreover, in contrast to traditional parliamentary republics, this leader will not become the leader of government, but the leader of parliament. In western parliamentary republics, a parliamentary speaker’s powers are, on the whole, limited to carrying out technical procedures.

The draft constitution also proposes an end to direct presidential elections, and that the president will be elected by a College of Electors chosen from parliament and local government. Thus the next president of Armenia, who will be able to legislate for seven years, will not have a direct mandate from the electorate.

All told, the office of president will be a markedly different one – the future president will see their residence requirement shortened (whereas that of the prime minister and members of government will be five years). The president will be deprived of the right to veto draft bills and decisions taken by parliament, and will no longer be commander-in-chief – an office which, during times of war, will be allocated to the prime minister.

In a drastic change to the previous separation of powers between president and parliament, only parliament will appoint representatives to the Constitutional Court. There will also be electoral changes, with all parliamentary deputies being elected on a proportional basis. A vote of no-confidence in the government can be initiated by one fifth of the parliament.

In parliamentary elections, the document guarantees a second round of elections if none of the political forces can muster a majority in the first. In this case, a second round will be held, in which the two leading parties or blocs with take part. Meanwhile, the system of local governance and the three levels of Armenia's legal system will remain untouched.

Thus the leader of the ruling party will become the speaker, and not the prime minister. In essence, the president will be a figurehead, and the parliamentary speaker will become the political system’s central figure, rather than the prime minister (who is usually responsible for policy in a parliamentary republic).

In essence, the president will be a figurehead

The Italian model

The project’s authors state that this model comes from Italian law.

But this reference to Italy is not quite accurate: the project’s authors refer to Italy’s new Electoral Law, which came into force on 5 May 2015, rather than Italy’s constitutional norms. And Italy’s new Electoral Law has yet to be tested in practice.

Potentially, these constitutional changes could lead to an artificially created two-party system (six parties are represented in the current parliament); it would also make coalitions impossible, as well as marginalising the small parties which are an important element of Armenia’s political life.

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April 2013: Serzh Sargsyan starts his second presidential term. (c) Davit Nakobyan / VisualRIAN.

The president’s opponents claim that by changing the constitution, Sargsyan is hoping to continue his rule by taking on the role of speaker, and that the whole process of constitutional reform was designed with this aim in mind.

Moreover, while Sargsyan has made several public statements to the effect that he doesn’t want to continue as president or become PM, he has, however, never stated his intentions regarding the role of speaker.

David Harutyunyan, head of Sargsyan’s administration and former Minister of Justice, has recently denied that the president was thinking of such a thing.

Transitional provisions

Yet having presented these draft constitutional changes, the Special Commission is yet to publish its ‘transitional provisions’ of the constitutional amendments. These will be published later, apparently in September.

These provisions will include a description of the transitional process—if the constitutional changes are passed. One has to assume that Sargsyan will continue to occupy the post of president with his current powers into 2017-2018.

But in the next parliamentary elections, due to take place in 2017, Sargsyan will most likely head up the Republican Party’s candidate list, just like in 2012. That said, Sargsyan might choose not to run, as he will have to exercise presidential powers until April 2018.

As a result, after his second presidential term, Sargsyan may become a member of parliament, taking the place of one of his supporters via some ‘new mechanism’, which will allow people who have previously refused a parliamentary mandate to receive one.

Thus, Harutunyan’s words about his boss not becoming speaker may well be true now, but only if he meant the current presidential term up until April 2018. At the same time, the opponents of constitutional reform are also right in the sense that they are concerned with the period after the end of Sargysan’s second term.

Of course, in the post-Soviet space, Sargsyan’s desire to stay in power is nothing out of the ordinary. In fact, it’s business as usual: Sargsyan’s ‘bolshevism’ is just one of the rules of the game. Practically every current head of state in the former Soviet Union has a Party background.

Of course, in the post-Soviet space, Sargsyan’s desire to stay in power is nothing out of the ordinary

Opponents

Opponents of constitutional reform include Prosperous Armenia, businessman Gagik Tsarukyan’s platform; Heritage, led by former Foreign Minister Raffi Hovannisyan; and the conservative centrists, Rule of Law.

All of these parties are currently under pressure from the presidential palace over their support or otherwise for the draft constitutional changes, and their desire to participate in discussion. ARF-Dashnaktsutyun, a former opposition party now in bed with the president, supports these moves; its party programme has a specific section on the issue.

The Armenian National Congress, meanwhile, has taken the most radical stance against the amendments. According to the party of Levon Ter-Petrosyan, Armenia’s first independent president, these changes will amount to a coup d’état, and will only guarantee an extension of Sargsyan’s rule. Armenia’s second president Robert Kocharyan (2001-2008) also has his reservations.

Interestingly, the ruling Republican Party is not yet sufficiently behind these changes. Figures close to Sargsyan are interested in fighting it out for the presidential throne (with its current powers) after Sargsyan’s departure.

On the face of it, there is currently a lack of consensus on constitutional reform amidst Armenia’s political elite (and its counter-elite). Experts at the Venice Commission, the Council of Europe body, which deals with constitutional law, are concerned precisely with consensus. The Commission has recently brought out its provisional comments, but its final report is not due before autumn.

Given this situation, and the fact that Europe has remained largely silent on this issue, the Armenian authorities are trying to speed up this process. Armenia’s national assembly is likely to begin discussions of the reforms in September; a referendum on the issue might be held as early as November.

What do people in Armenia think?

The question remains, however: what do people in Armenia think? While the number of sociological centres worth trusting in Armenia is rather limited, last year, APR Group surveyed around 1,300 respondents in Yerevan on this issue.

They found that 60% of respondents were confident that there was no urgent necessity for amendments to the current constitution, and that 53% were completely unaware of the coming changes.

Moreover, 81% of respondents expressed distrust in the process, and 75% did not believe that anything would change in the country as a result of these reforms.

In February 2015, General Manvel Grigoryan (known for his eccentric behaviour) caused a scandal at a congress of military volunteers, after he called Serzh Sargsyan, sat in the room before him, the ‘last Bolshevik’

Grigoryan may have had some explaining to do afterwards, but looking at Sargsyan’s plans, that moniker doesn’t seem unjustified.

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