Armenia – From semi-presidentialism to parliamentarism?

A constitutional referendum is expected to take place in Armenia by the end of the year. In the event of a positive popular vote, the current semi-presidential political system will be transformed into a parliamentary one. At this stage, the reform is strongly favoured by the ruling party, the Republican Party (HHK) while the opposition is divided.

The transformation into a parliamentary system would dramatically change a key feature of the Armenian political system: the preponderance of the presidential office. The first post-independence constitution (also called by its critics “super-presidential”), in vigour since 1995, gave extensive power to the president over all the three branches of government. The second constitution, approved by referendum in 2005, introduced some limits to the power of the president and, conversely, enhanced the prerogatives of the parliament. However, given that for the past 16 years the same party (HHK) has dominated both the executive and legislative branches, no practical change has been observable[1]. The outcome of the referendum (a mandatory step to reform the constitution and expected to take place by the end of the year) may completely shift the distribution of power.

Departing from the past, the constitutional reform would make the presidential office largely ceremonial. More specifically, instead of being the head of the executive, the successor to Mr Sarkisian, would not be directly elected anymore but would be nominated by an electoral college, and would in effect be a super partes figure with limited leeway for autonomous action. In fact, he would have practically no room for intervention in legislative matters. By contrast, the prime minister, who at the current stage has limited personal power, would be in charge of domestic and foreign policy[2]. The President would still formally perform some relevant state activities, such as changing the composition of the government, appointing or recalling diplomats and approving (or suspending) international treaties. However, all those actions should be initiated by proposal of the prime minister[3].

The recent publication of a constitutional draft is the result of almost two years of work. On 4 September 2013 President Sarkisian set up a Commission on Constitutional Reforms. In November of the same year Mr Gagik Harutyunyan[4], the coordinator of the aforementioned Commission and President of the Constitutional Court of Armenia, asked the Venice Commission, which is the Council of Europe’s advisory body on constitutional matters, for some assistance in the drafting of a new constitution. The demand was accepted and a group of rapporteurs was constituted. After various rounds of meetings and opinions, in July 2015 a partial first draft was submitted to the Venice Commission. The advisory body praised the effort but also highlighted some points of concern. One of them, pertinent to the parliamentary elections, was the mandatory second round of voting (between the first two parties) in the event that a clear parliamentarian majority failed to emerge. In the draft of July 2015 this point was disciplined by article 89, which provided detailed disposals on the conduct of the second electoral round as well as, for example, the obligation to present the candidate prime ministers. This point, also as result of numerous consultations with opposition parties, has been modified. In fact, in the new version of the text, a run-off vote “may be held” instead of “shall be held”. Additionally, all the details have been removed and transferred to the electoral code.

The run-off issue raised a concern not only in the Venice commission but also in most opposition parties (with the sole exception of ARF). In fact, the opposition feared such a provision would give a disproportionate advantage to the current ruling party such that, if the change had been included, it would have almost certainly recorded a clear-cut victory for the ruling party[5]. For this reason, until the beginning of the summer, the reform lacked broad political support. After the government declared its intention to exclude the aforementioned run-off vote from the constitutional draft, Prosperous Armenia (the second party in the parliament) agreed to back the proposal. Other parties, namely the Armenian National Congress (ANC) and Heritage party, continue to refuse to support the process. The reason for this inflexible attitude is that, even though in principle they may favour a parliamentary system, they fear that President Sarkisian could take advantage from the reform and extend his power beyond the end of his presidential mandate in 2017.

Under the current disposal, the president cannot run for a third term. Consequently Mr Sarkisian, who is already serving his second mandate, should step down after next election. Designating a successor is no guarantee on that he or she would be willing to accept Mr Sarkisian’s influence after the election. In fact, the current president enjoys limited popularity in the country and could be easily marginalized by any heir apparent[6]. Given that, critical voices argue that adopting a parliamentarian system may enable Mr Sarkisian to retain political power beyond the end of his term. As member of the National assembly, he could prolong his duration in power either as prime minister (though it is an option that he openly excluded), or as head of the ruling party. In brief is suspected that, instead of promoting the long-term stabilization of Armenia, the main goal of the reform is to ensure the permanence in power of the current political elite[7]. This vision is also shared by former president Kocharian (1998-2008), who bluntly declared that: “Any modification of the constitution for the sake of politicians’ current interests is a sign of the country’s degradation.” and by the former ministry of foreign affairs Oskanian (1998-2008).  Mr Oskanian also considers that the current government does not enjoy enough political legitimacy to promote such a dramatic change.

Civil society, even though during the summer it was mainly mobilized around the “Electric Yerevan issue”, has shown some interest in the topic. In the past months, the civic initiative “You won’t pass it” has been voicing its concern and trying to fundraise both domestically and abroad in order to rent conference halls and print leaflets. In September 2015 the initiative “NO” appeared. Looking at the population at large, a recent survey shows limited knowledge of the domestic political system. In fact, most respondents believed the country to be a presidential republic rather than a semi-presidential one[8].  Mr Armenak Minasyants[9], a Visiting Scholar in Public Administration at The Fletcher School at Tufts University, comments that the public debate around the issue has not focused on the legal aspects or content of the proposed reform but more notably on the implication for the distribution of power in the short run. The lingering question in almost all the talks is whether the president will step down or not after the term. Given the on-going mainstream narrative, the forthcoming referendum is likely to be perceived as a sort of popular confidence vote on Mr Sarkisian.

This research was supported by a FP7/Marie Curie ITN action. Grant agreement N°: 316825

[1] Mikayel Zolyan, Parliamentary Democracy or One-Party State: What is behind Armenia’s Constitutional Reform, Staff Analysis, Regional Studies Center (RSC), Vol.4 No.3, September 2015, http://regional-studies.org/images/pr/2015/september/11/RSC_Staff_Analysis_Constitutional_Reform_Zolyan.pdf .

[2] Kathleen C. Weinberger, Armenia’s Constitutional Reforms: Forward Movement or Momentous Fallacy?, Staff Analysis, Regional Studies Center (RSC), Vol.4 No.4, September 2015, http://regional-studies.org/images/pr/2015/september/11/RSC_Staff_Analysis_Constitutional_Reform_Weinberger.pdf .

[3] Draft Constitution (July 2015), articles 131 and 132, http://www.venice.coe.int/webforms/documents/default.aspx?pdffile=CDL-REF(2015)023-e .

[4] A well-recognized legal scholar and practitioner, he contributed to the drafting of all the Armenian constitutions, including the 2003 version that was rejected by referendum and not adopted. Mr Harutyunyan, convinced that the Constitution of 2005 did not fully match the Armenian political context, is believed to have played a strong role in the initiation of the Commission on Constitutional Reforms (Armenak Minasyants, phone interview, 13 September 2015).

[5] Zolyan 2015

[6] Zolyan 2015

[7] Weinberger 2015

[8] Ibidem

[9] Phone interview, 13 September 2015.

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