Armenia – One year after the Constitutional Reform: Future perspectives for the President and his party

In 2015, after a referendum, Armenia voted to switch from a semi-presidential political system to a parliamentarian one. As a consequence of that, most governing prerogatives are due to shift from the president to the prime minister. This change has been accompanied by discussions about the implications of the change. Notably, both before and after the vote, the public debate has focused on the consequences on the tenure in power of President Serzh Sargsyan, who has been ambiguous as to whether he will run for Prime Minister after the end of his second and last presidential mandate. Almost one year after the constitutional amendment, the debate has not ceased.

The debate about the constitutional reform has centred on the personal gains of politicians (especially the serving President) rather than on the institutional implication. This is nothing new in either an Armenian or the South Caucasian context. More than a decade ago, in the months preceding the Armenian Constitutional Reform in 2005, the public debate in Yerevan focused on how the new legislative provisions would give substantial immunity to the president[1]. Similarly, in 2010, when neighbouring Georgia approved a similar reform to the 2015 Armenian constitutional change, critics observed that it would secure then then President Mikheil Saakashvili’s position in power. In the end, the electoral defeat of Mr Saakashvili’s party (UNM) in the 2012 parliamentary election was followed by a smooth transfer of power, often saluted by external observers as a crucial moment in the Georgian path towards democratisation.

Back in Armenia, the debate has been recently revitalised after the public declarations of the President. At the end of October 2016, when asked by Al Jazeera about his intention to run for Prime Minister in 2017, President Sargsyan answered evasively: “You know, I find it too early for these conversations.” While, for roughly one month, Mr Sargsyan refrained from further comments, in the following days and weeks different comments came from the ruling majority, the opposition and the press. Tatevik Shahunyan, who is Vice Speaker of the Armenian Parliament and Spokesman for the ruling “Republican Party” (RP), declared that it was premature to talk about the political future of the President before knowing the results of the Parliamentary elections in 2017; this statement neither confirmed nor denied the scenario of Mr Sargsyan becoming Prime Minister at the end of his presidential mandate[2].

As expected, the opposition commented on these developments in a much more decisive way. Levon Zurabian, a parliamentary leader of Armenian National Congress (HAK), interpreted President Sarksyan’s statement as an admission of political ambitions beyond his presidential mandate. This opinion was promptly reiterated by Mr Zaruhi Postanjian, the leader of Heritage party. The press enriched the debate by pointing out the potential intra-party implications of this “tandem”. The pro-opposition paper Zhamanak reported that an exceptional electoral result by the ruling Republican Party might be interpreted as stemming from the work of the current Prime Minister Karen Karapetyan. In that case, his resignation in favour of Serzh Sargsyan would seem illogical. President Sargsyan might benefit more from a “moderately good” result which, without jeopardising the ruling majority, would not be interpreted as the personal success of Mr Karapetyan[3].

After roughly a month of silence, President Sargsyan finally spoke both about the Prime Ministership and party unity, denying any conflict between his personal ambitions and the future of his faction. On November 26, in occasion of a speech given at the “16th Convention of the Republican Party of Armenia[4]”, he ruled out the immediate substitution of the Prime Minister, saying that:  “[I]n case we receive the vote of trust in the coming elections, our government will again be headed by Prime Minister Karen Karapetian who will continue to implement the current programs.”. In spite of this declaration, which in any case did not clarify President Sargsyan’s intention after the end of his presidential mandate in 2018, some members of the opposition maintained their comments. For example, Levon Zurabyan (HAK) declared: “Karen Karapetyan is being used by the PR to secure their success in the parliamentary election. That will later pave Serzh Sargsyan’s way to the prime minister’s office”.

In relation to intra-party dynamics, President Sargsyan’s speech placed the emphasis on the need for the Republican Party to unite[5] and promote the modernization of the country. Notably, significant space was devoted to the economic results obtained in the last eight years in the face of the global financial crisis. He pointed out the need for Armenia to undergo a broad process of reforms, both in relation to the economic development of the country and in the face of external challenges. In the words of President Sargsyan: “We need to reduce and eliminate the negative [spill-over of the hostile external environment]. Any successful reform will bring also new success in other areas”. This insistence on change seems to refer not only to future targets but also to measures adopted in the recent months. Notably, a reduction in the gas price, effective as of July 2017, was approved in October. In the same month, an anticorruption bill was voted.

The lengthy speech by President Sargsyan at the annual party convention suggests that the forthcoming parliamentary campaign will be mostly centred on economic themes rather than on strong personalities. That is in line with one of the declared goals of the constitutional reform, namely the replacement of a people-based political culture with the consolidation of ideological platforms. Pertinently, the President’s rhetoric reveals the attempt to minimise intra-party divisions and shift the attention to a programmatic platform. In this perspective, the opposition, which is hardly unified, has already expressed its interest in joining forces to prevent a landslide victory of the Republican Party. The next months will be crucial in understanding whether the soon-to-be introduced parliamentary system can indeed foster democratisation as claimed by its proponents, rather than being the vehicle for personal political ambitions.

Notes

[1] Arminfo News Agency. 2005. “Those Who State that the Bill of Constitutional Reform will lead to Impunity of the President are Unaware of the Bill”, November 26 (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[2] ARMINFO News Agency. 2016. “Sharmazanov in the footsteps of Serzh Sargsyan’s interview to Al Jazeera: It is tactless to speak of President’s plans after 2017 elections until election results are known”, November 4 (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[3] BBC Monitoring Trans Caucasus Unit. 2016. “Armenian press discuss president’s interview with Al-Jazeera”, October 29 (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[4] In occasion of the 16th Convention of the Republican Party of Armenia, Prime Minister Karapetyan has formally joined the Republican party.

[5] In spite of this pledge for unity, analysts suspect that the inclusion of Mr Karapetyan in the Republican Party has not been received with unanimous enthusiasm [ARMINFO News Agency. 2016. “Expert: with Karapetyan’s assignment the old guard turned the most vulnerable point of Republicans”, November 28 (Retrieved through LexisNexis)].

 

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