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Armenia's Contested Political Reforms

Critics say proposed changes could entrench the powers of Armenia’s current rulers rather than opening up the political system.
By Arshaluis Mghdesyan
  • Members of Armenia's parliament discuss political reforms. (Photo: National Assembly of Armenia)
    Members of Armenia's parliament discuss political reforms. (Photo: National Assembly of Armenia)

Armenia is heading for a major overhaul of the political system, which looks like a move away from a strong presidency to genuine parliamentary democracy. Opposition members and other critics of the scheme, however, warn that key clauses in the revised constitution could end up creating a one-party state.

A commission of legal experts has published the first 15 chapters of a draft constitution, which will have to go before a referendum before becoming law. It contains provisions for a parliament-led political system in which the president’s role becomes largely ceremonial.

Armenia would get a 101-seat parliament with a five year term elected entirely by proportional representation. Under the current system, Armenia has 131 members of parliament, 41 of whom are elected in first-past-the-post constituencies and the rest by proportional representation. At the moment, the Republican Party has an absolute majority with 70 seats.

The party is led by President Serzh Sargsyan, who under the current system is elected for five years and can serve no more than two consecutive terms. Sargsyan will end his second term in 2018.

If passed, the draft constitution would significantly reduce the powers of future presidents, who would serve a single term of seven years and have a largely symbolic status. The president would have no right to arbitrate on political matters and would have no power of veto.

Presidents would no longer be elected by the people, but chosen by an electoral college consisting of equal numbers of parliamentarians and local officials.

The most controversial part of the document is designed to ensure what is described as a “stable majority”. In practice, if no one party was able to form a majority government after an election, a second round of voting would take place at which people would be given a choice between the two parties or coalitions that scored the most votes the first time.

This unusual arrangement has led to warnings that the ruling party and its leader – meaning the Republicans and Sargsyan at the moment – would have their power entrenched.

Armenia’s first post-independence constitution, passed in 1995, established a presidential form of government. A constitutional reform ten years later expanded the powers of parliament and reduced the role of the president, although the head of state still remained the most powerful figure.

The concept of a “stable majority” appears to stem from Sargsyan’s reaction to early drafts of the new constitution. Initially, the commission considered whether to simply improve the existing system of government, or whether to move towards a stronger parliament. Presented with a draft some months ago, the president voiced “certain concerns”.

“I still don’t have a good idea how the system that’s being proposed will provide unconditional guarantees of the two most important things – domestic and external security, and stability of government,” Sargsyan said.

After this, the commission began drafting the “stable majority” model complete with the option of two rounds of elections.

Levon Zurabyan, parliamentary leader of the opposition Armenian National Congress, believes the sole purpose of this reform is to keep power in Sargsyan’s hands after he leaves presidential office.

“The adoption of this reform will strengthen the dictatorship of the ruling party and perpetuate the power of Serzh Sargsyan. They thought up this idea of a second round of parliamentary elections – there’s no precedent for it in world parliamentary practice – and as a result, a single party will have an absolute majority in parliament,” Zurabyan said continuing, vowing that his party would campaign to turn public and political opinion against the proposed changes.

Last year, Sargsyan declared that he would not pursue the post of president, prime minister or speaker of parliament if the system of government changed. His critics are not entirely convinced, and point out that if he remains leader of the majority party, he will wield considerable influence even without holding a formal position.

“Constitutional reform can be discussed or go to a referendum only if Serzh Sargsyan steps down as leader of the ruling Republican party,” said Stepan Danielyan, chairman of the Cooperation for Democracy Centre. “Otherwise what we’ll have is a simple mechanism for ensuring the [current] authorities perpetuate themselves via a change to the system of government,”

Ara Ghazaryan, an expert on international law, told IWPR that the absence of checks and balances in the political system made it possible for one-party rule to emerge.

“I think that holding a second round of elections to form a stable majority is a risky undertaking given the political legacy of the past 20 years, the principle of winner takes all, and some other problems with… democratisation,” he said. “I think it would be better if the political forces in parliament tried to form a coalition government, if none of them had a majority.”

The authorities insist these fears are unfounded.

“Constitutional reform is not an end in itself,” said Eduard Sharmazanov, a deputy speaker of parliament who is spokesman for the Republican Party. “It isn’t even the main issue for us. Discussions about this issue haven’t yet been completed. These reforms are designe to strengthen the political system by reducing the influence of individuals.”

Sharmazanov said it would be up to the electorate to decide when the constitutional draft went to a referendum. So far, Armenians do not appear to be enthusiastic about the proposed changes.

A poll carried out by the Advanced Public Research Group last year found that more than 60 per cent of respondents did not support the reform process.

“In Armenia, there is no public demand for constitutional reforms,” explained Hovhannes Galstyan, a political scientist at the Institute for Public Policy, Analysis and Dialogue. “The constitution is above all a political document… the public is not involved in the process and does not support it.”

Galstyan said that since the Republican Party already dominated Armenian politics, the apparent impulse to create a more democratic system was “questionable”.

Arshaluis Mghdesyan is a freelance journalist in Armenia.