Armenia – The constitutional referendum and the role of the president during the campaign

On Sunday a referendum took place in Armenia. Citizens were called to express their opinion on a set of constitutional amendments. With 63.35% voting in favour, the “yes front” prevailed (though the official result will be published the 13th December). Among other things, the result means a deep restructuring of the architecture of state power. More precisely, the Armenian semi-presidential political system will transition into a parliamentary one.

This result, relished by the ruling Republican Party, was not necessarily determined in advance. In fact, surveys conducted in the previous weeks did not show clear-cut result. Even the referendum day witnessed a certain surprise element. First, the voter turnout was slightly above 50%, which is the minimum threshold to validate the result. Second, and probably most importantly, some observers denounced the elections as rigged.  In particular, the opposition lamented cases of pressure, ballot-stuffing, violence and vote buying. Journalistic sources reported the episode of a man in a van distributing 10,000 drams (almost $20) to elderly voters. When asked about it, he claimed he was paying back a debt. These incidents also raised concerns among international observers. On Tuesday (8th December), the US and the EU invited the Armenian authorities  to conduct an investigation on the major irregularities that plagued the referendum.

Fraud was feared even before the vote. In fact, already in November various groups suggested that the authorities were planning to rig the referendum. The main opposition to the changes were the “No” Front and the “New Armenia Public Salvation Front”. The former is mainly composed of the Armenian National Congress (ANC), and the People’s Party of Armenia. In the past months Levon Zurabian, an ANC leader, emerged as probably the most visible character from this group. The latter is principally composed of the Heritage party, the Democratic Homeland opposition party, the socio-political organization ‘Constitutive Parliament’, and the protest movement ‘Rise, Armenia!’ Even if they occasionally cooperated in the campaign, they never merged. In the aftermath of the allegedly rigged vote, the groups are holding joint protests in the capital.

During the referendum, though, one actor was surprisingly quiet: the President of the Republic, Serzh Sarkisian. Even if the reform was strongly supported by his ruling Republican Party, President Sarkisian, who originally set up a Commission on Constitutional Reforms (on 4 September 2013) and facilitated the various stages of the referendum, did not play a role prior in the vote. In fact, after signing the decree setting the day of the referendum, he limited his number of declarations to both domestic and international media outlets.

Looking at his behavior, it seems that he did not want to present the change as his own brainchild. Even if he limited his comments, an attentive interpretation of some of his declarations supports this idea. For example, in his address to the 3rd International Forum of the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MSIIR) Alumni, President Sarkisian underlined how the final text of the proposed new draft was the result of a prolonged dialogue with the opposition and the civil society. Additionally, he pointed out that the “draft of amendments to the acting Constitution [was] based on the Concept Paper published six months ago [by the Venice Commission]”. Similarly Edvard Nalbandyan, the Armenian Foreign Minister, declared in Tbilisi, at an unofficial meeting of EU Eastern Partnership foreign ministers, that the Venice Commission considered the work of the Constitutional Commission to be accurate and in line with international standards.

In addition, in the final phase of the campaign the president and (to a lesser degree) the Republican Party stated that a positive result was not an absolute priority and that, no matter what the outcome, the government’s position in office was not at stake. The press conference that the President gave on the 3rd of December, after weeks of quasi-silence, illustrates this point. President Sarkisian said that:“ Our priority is to conduct a normal referendum, within legal boundaries, and not just make changes. Changes are not the matter of life and death, and in general, for me no voting is a matter of life and death”.  Sticking to the same line a couple of days before, Vice President of the National Assembly Eduard Sharmazanov declared that the reform was not a top priority for the Republican Party.

The aforementioned declarations seem aimed to present the reform as a shared effort, bringing together domestic and international actors, instead of a personal battle. Ultimately, they might be interpreted as an effort by President Sarkisian to distance himself from the project. As reported by the pro-opposition “Zhoghovurd” Newspaper, the opposition considered this silence, which was quite unusual shortly before a referendum, as an attempt not to transform a possible defeat into a personal failure of the president and, eventually, into a de facto vote on his tenure in power[1].

In spite of this low profile, the pre-referendum press interview obtained huge attention and criticism from the opposition. The president seemed to contradict his previous declarations on his future. In the past months, he has declared that he would not be seeking the role of prime minister after the end of his presidential mandate in 2018. Departing from that position, when asked about his future intentions, he said that: “We will talk about that after the 2017 parliamentary elections”. This vagueness reinforced a major critique of the reform, namely that it was aimed at the good of the country but the perpetuation in power of President Sarkisian. In the immediate aftermath of the interview, Levon Zurabian, a leader of the “Armenian National Congress” party, said that: “Serzh Sarkisian has refuted his loyalists’ claims that he has no desire to reproduce his regime (..) With his statement, he has exposed his entire plan to retain power”.

Commenting on the final result, President Sarkisian said that:We can now conclude that the parliamentary system of government for our state is already a reality (…) It means the existence of strong government and strong opposition, an increased role for political parties and new opportunities for their development”.  He did only briefly mentioned the allegations of fraud, suggesting that the competent bodies should investigate any fraudulent episodes. At this stage, no comment was made on his political future.

Note

[1] This last point is particularly significant if we consider that one of the main discussion points in the previous months was whether the constitutional change would allow the president to remain in power. In addition, some groups started to question President Sarkisian would serve until the end of his term. More precisely, on 1st of December, the “New Armenia Public Salvation Form” held a permanent sit-in in Freedom square (one of the main squares of the capital) and openly called for the resignation of President Sarkisian.

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