Armenian Constitutional Battle

Parliament fights over the powers of the president.

Armenian Constitutional Battle

Parliament fights over the powers of the president.

Wednesday, 15 September, 2004

The autumn session of the Armenian parliament which began this week will be dominated by reform of the constitution, with a battle already raging between the ruling coalition and the opposition.


Two proposed sets of changes to the constitution have been put forward, one formulated by the three-party pro-government coalition and the other by opposition deputy Arshak Sadoyan, leader of the National Democratic Alliance of Armenia.


The main bone of contention is the division of powers between different branches of government, with the pro-government coalition signalling its desire to strengthen presidential powers.


The leader of the pro-presidential nationalist Dashnaktsutiun group in parliament Levon Mkrtchian argues that the present situation in the Caucasus requires strong presidential authority and there is no case for a change to a more parliamentary system.


“The coalition’s proposal is proof of the strong position of the president,” commented political analyst Stepan Safarian from the Armenian Centre for National and International Studies.


Especially controversial is a proposed change whereby the president can recommend a new government programme to parliament three times and choose to dissolve parliament if it is rejected on the third occasion.


Sadoyan is proposing that on the third occasion parliament itself should be able to form the government. A compromise proposal is being discussed according to which if there is deadlock on the third attempt the president can nominate a new government but it has to be approved by parliament.


Armenia is currently under strong pressure from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, which decided this week to debate progress made on a series of obligations it put to the Yerevan government (and also to Azerbaijan) at its October 4-8 session. The government has agreed with the Council of Europe that it should make amendments to its constitution before the end of 2004 and no later than June 2005, by a national referendum.


A referendum held last year on a previous set of constitutional amendments failed to receive sufficient support from voters. On coming to power in 1998 Robert Kocharian pledged to reform Armenia’s 1995 constitution, but only drew up a package of proposals in 2003.


Tigran Torosian, deputy speaker of parliament and head of the working group which is drafting the changes, told IWPR that the package of amendments would be a significant step forward for Armenia, guaranteeing “improvement of the constitutional mechanisms of the realisation of rights and basic freedoms of an individual, the introduction of a system of checks and balances in the government, guarantees, the creation of an independent and unbiased judicial system and local authorities”.


Leading human rights activist Avetik Ishkhanian, head of Armenia’s Helsinki Committee, does not agree. “In the new drafts, human rights are very declarative as there are no mechanisms to protect rights and they only exist on paper,” he told IWPR.


Opposition deputy Shavarsh Kocharian of the Justice group in parliament makes broader criticisms, saying that of 121 articles in the constitution, only 20 are being substantially changed and only four of these are changing in a positive direction.


Kocharian - who is no relation of the Armenian president - says he is concerned that the pro-government coalition wants to increase the number of presidential terms the head of state can serve from two to three. Robert Kocharian is currently serving his second term as head of state.


“The new amendments are definitely intended to increase the power of a president, who has decided to keep himself permanently in power, like the leaders of the Central Asian countries,” said Shavarsh Kocharian, warning that this could turn Armenia into a “tyrannical state”.


Torosian rejected these charges, saying, “In 2003 when we were working on the previous draft of constitutional changes, there was a similarly absurd kind of talk but in actual fact nothing of this kind was included in the draft. In the new draft there is no such paragraph and there are no proposals to include it.


“This kind of talk comes from the sphere of parapsychology, not from law-making and these people are obviously pursuing political goals.”


The differences on the constitution run not only between pro-government parties and the opposition but within the two movements as well.


For example, the Dashnaktsutiun Party wants to see a completely proportional electoral system in parliament, while its partner, the Orinats Erkir Party, wants to preserve the existing balance of 80 per cent of seats elected via proportional representation and 20 per cent through constituencies.


Gurgen Arsenian, the leader of another small pro-government group in parliament, the United Labour, surprised his coalition partners by saying that his party withdrew its support for the constitutional reforms in their current form and that they would come up with their own proposals.


Meanwhile, some opposition members are saying that Sadoyan did not agree his proposed constitutional amendments with his parliamentary allies and that he is breaking an agreed opposition strategy of boycotting legislative work in parliament.


Sadoyan told IWPR that his alternative proposals were in line with party policy and that he would ignore the opposition boycott and debate the issue in parliament.


Experts say there is very low confidence amongst the public in Armenia’s constitution and how it can be enforced and almost no public discussion of it. Even when it was first adopted in 1995, Safarian said, “People doubted its legitimacy. They did not consider it to be theirs and did not take it seriously as they were not convinced that it had an importance in their life. Certainly there is a need to revise the constitution but people should understand it.”


Safarian said the parliamentary battles over the constitution were “purely political competition” and politicians displayed little evidence of caring about the public.


“I believe neither the government, nor politicians nor people need a revision of the constitution,” Yerevan schoolteacher Stepan Mnatsakanian told IWPR, speaking for many. “The problem is not the laws we have but how they are enforced. Why spend time and money improving the articles of the constitution when the most democratic of them are broken.”


Naira Melkumian is a freelance journalist in Yerevan.

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