Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Armenia's Constitutional Reform Delayed Indefinitely

Flagship vote put on back burner while country deals with Covid-19.
By Manya Israyelyan
  • A cabinet meeting held to discuss the referendum. (Photo: Press Office of the Government of Armenia)
    A cabinet meeting held to discuss the referendum. (Photo: Press Office of the Government of Armenia)

Armenian prime minister Nikol Pashinyan’s signature policy of judicial reform has been thrown into jeopardy by the coronavirus pandemic, with a promised referendum on constitutional reforms postponed indefinitely.

The state of emergency imposed on March 17 means the scheduled April 5 vote, which envisages the dismissal of seven of the nine acting members of the constitutional court, can no longer go ahead.

(See Armenia: Can Government Popularity Weather Covid-19?)

The range of nation-wide limitations imposed in response to the pandemic, which include restrictions on freedom of movement, the closing of restaurants and cafes as well as all educational institutions, will last at least until April 16. However, it is likely that this period will be extended.

The official referendum campaign began on February 17 and was intended to last until April 3, with Pashinyan himself having intended to take leave from his prime ministerial duties to focus on the vote.

“In a state of emergency, a referendum cannot be held in the country. It must take place after the state of emergency, no earlier than 50 days and no later than 65 days,” he told a special meeting of the national assembly on March 16.

The postponement was a particularly severe blow as Pashinyan’s administration has repeatedly advocated the necessity of restoring judicial independence as an essential conclusion to 2018’s so-called Velvet Revolution.

The amendment envisages the removal of judges, most notably Hrayr Tovmasyan, who are widely perceived as too close to the former government.

Tovmasyan is seen as one of the last prominent representations of the Republican Party, and widely credited with tailoring the December 2015 constitutional amendments to fit former premier Serzh Sargsyan’s ambitions for life-long governance. This also resulted in Tovmasyan’s appointment as head of the constitutional body until he reached pension age in 2035. 

Nina Karapetyants, chairwoman of the Helsinki Association for Human Rights, told IWPR that the constitutional court represented the previous authorities rather than the country.

 “This is a fact that was proven each time the court made a decision regarding post-election cases,” Karapetyants said.  

Political commentator Hakob Badalyan said that while the proposed changes to the court would only tackle the issue of its composition rather than its independence, the move would still increase public trust in the judicial process.

“Having an independent judiciary is a matter of a rather long process, it is not realistic to expect an independent judiciary within a few months,” he continued.

“Independence requires institutional solutions for which we have a long way to go. But in this case we will at least have a Constitutional Court that truly enjoys public trust because public attitude towards that court is mediated by the attitude towards the government.”

Delaying their flagship policy will come as a blow to the ruling party, especially as some have criticised the government as having been too slow to respond to the Covid-19 crisis.

But political scientist Armen Baghdasaryan told IWPR that this would not permanently frustrate the plans for judicial reform.

“The measures taken over the virus, though belated, inspire hope that it will be overcome in the emergency period,” he said. “Whether the referendum will or will not take place in the summer, I can’t say. But it is also possible that it will be delayed for a longer period to carry out overall constitutional amendments instead of merely changing judges.”

Meanwhile, Nagorno-Karabakh is not going to change the date of its parliamentary and presidential elections, scheduled for March 31. The central election committee introduced a number of preventive measures to try and hamper the spread of infection when people turn out to vote.

This publication was prepared under the "Giving Voice, Driving Change - from the Borderland to the Steppes Project" implemented with the financial support of the Foreign Ministry of Norway.

More IWPR's Global Voices