Armenia – The election of a ceremonial president, but what about the ‘new’ Prime Minister?

On March 2, the Armenian parliament elected the next president of the country. The ‘winner’ (and only candidate) was Dr Armen Sarkissian[1], formerly an academic, Armenian prime minister, and  Armenian ambassador to the UK. However, Dr Sarkissian’s prerogatives will be mostly ceremonial, as the 2015 constitutional reform transferred most of the president’s governing powers to the prime minister. While the current President Serzh Sargsyan has not openly expressed his intention to run as prime minister[2] (to be selected in April), he played a crucial role in the nomination of president-elect Armen Sarkissian, fuelling rumours about him becoming prime minister. This triggered not only unhappiness from the opposition, but also protest rallies.

A new (ceremonial) president

In January, President Serzh Sargsyan asked Armen Sarkissian to stand as president. This was not an obvious choice, as Dr Sarkissian has been living abroad (mostly in the UK) for the past decades, holding first academic fellowships and then diplomatic posts. He is known for being a close friend of Prince Charles, who in 2016 hosted a gala dinner to support “Yerevan My Love”, a charity set up by Sarkissian. Additionally, he has been a senior advisor for companies such as British Petroleum, Alcatel and Telefonia. On occasions, doubts have been raised about the transparency of his business activities.

Sarkissian’s nomination was widely supported by the ruling block. Other than being the candidate of the ruling Republican Party (HHK), Dr Sarkissian was also backed by the junior coalition partner Dashnaktsutyun. Additionally, the Tsarukian’s alliance, which is officially in the opposition, neither openly opposed Armen Sarkissian’s nomination nor proposed an alternative candidate. In brief, the Yelk bloc, which holds 9 out of 105 parliamentary seats, was the only coalition to oppose Sarkissian as the (sole) candidate president[3]. Against this background, it was no surprise when he was elected by a landslide in the first round. He is due to take office on April 9. In the immediate aftermath of his election, Armen Sarkissian expressed gratitude to his predecessor for his support and guidance in the past months, and made clear that his mandate will be in full continuity with Serzh Sargsyan’s work and vision. In Dr Sarkissian’s words: “I am ready to completely devote myself (…) to a cause which is actually also a continuation of the first, second and third of your presidencies.[4]

His election was marked by some controversy over his eligibility, as a dozen leading NGOs suspected that he did not meet the citizenship requirements. As per the 2015 constitution, presidential candidates must have been solely Armenian citizens for the previous six years. While Armen Sarkissian vehemently declared that he has renounced his British citizenship (acquired in 2002) in 2011, some evidence seems to suggest that he did so only in 2014. Furthermore, he never presented any UK-issued formal document about his citizenship status. However, despite the concerns of the opposition and civil society, members of cabinet dismissed these allegations as groundless.

Other than that, the close relationship between the President and President-elect cast some doubts on the legitimacy of the latter. According to the independent Armenian analyst Saro Saroyan, these dynamics are remarkably worrisome: “Will he [Armen Sarkissian] act as a puppet constrained by the lack of legitimacy or as a person with amorphous powers? If the import of such a president to Armenia is to the “credit” of Serzh Sargsyan, there can by default be no other decision in determining the personality of the prime minister. Serzh Sargsyan will be making this decision too”[5]. From this statement, two points can be inferred. The first one concerns the genuine political capital enjoyed by president-elect Armen Sarkissian. The second one is the extraordinary engagement of Serzh Sargsyan in this presidential election, as it seems to confirm his alleged willingness to become premier.

Who wants to be a prime minister?

In 2015, when a constitutional referendum was announced, rumours started to circulate about President Serzh Sargsyan’s political ambitions. As he was serving his second presidential mandate and was barred from seeking election for a third time, it was suspected that transitioning from a semi-presidential to a parliamentary system was a way for President Sargsyan to retain his power, in the guise of prime minister. In recent times, such suspicion has been reinforced by the further enhancement of the premier’s prerogatives. For instance, the National Security Service and Police will be reporting directly to the premier. Additionally, the prime minister will reside in Bagramyan 26, which is the current presidential residence, and the presidential staff will be considerably downsized (while the prime minister’s team will be enlarged)[6]. These changes, which add up to the (dramatic) constitutional empowerment of the prime minister’s powers, further reinforced the opposition’s firm belief that Serzh Sargsyan will be nominated by the HHK as the next premier. As observed by analysts and members of the opposition, Serzh Sargsyan “Would not have vested such broad powers in anyone except for himself”.

The HHK party, supported by the junior partner Dashnaktsutyun, enjoys a parliamentary majority solid enough to install any candidate of its choice.  Remarkably, even though President Serzh Sargsyan has not announced his plans yet, senior members of his party (HHK) have indicated that he is the ideal prime minister. Eduard Sharmazanov, the deputy speaker of parliament, said that the HHK party will formally discuss it after April 9, as a final choice is not due to until April 16. However, in his opinion, President Sargsyan would be the most qualified candidate. Similarly, Vahram Baghdasarian, the head of the HHK parliamentary faction, said that Serzh Sargsyan is the most suitable person for the job, also due to the tensions with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh. By contrast, the opposition considers the handling of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict as one of the reasons why Serzh Sargsyan should step down. According to Nikol Pashinyan, the head of the Yelk faction, the 4-days-war with Azerbaijan in April 2016 exposed the poor conditions of the Armenian army, which was still equipped with weapons from the 1980s. In spite of this evidence, Sargsyan did not take any concrete action to improve the situation[7].

Last weekend, rallies started to take place in the city centre. As noted by Mr Pashinyan, at this point, only massive grassroots protests can prevent Serzh Sargsyan from becoming prime minister. In Pashinyan’s words: “If the people are decisive, and as many go onto the streets as on March 1, 2008, I guarantee that we will prevent the next reproduction of Sargsyan[8].” In this regard, a newly-formed group called “Front for the State of Armenia”, aims at becoming a key platform for protest and change, uniting both parliamentary and extra-parliamentary opposition. The next rally is already scheduled for March 16.

Notes

[1] Some sources transliterate his last name as Sargsyan. However, ‘Sarkissian’ is the most widely used version.

[2] In 2015, as a result of a constitutional referendum, the powers of the President were drastically reduced and, conversely, those of the Prime Minister were dramatically enhanced. Even if President Serzh Sargsyan never gave unequivocal statements about his long-term political ambitions, from the beginning this reform was widely suspected to be a tool to extend his power after his second, and last, presidential mandate. This blog gave extended coverage to this topic, analysing the details of the reformthe processes before the vote and the pertinent debate in 2016 and 2017.

[3] This post, previously published on this blog, deals with the 2017 parliamentary election, explaining in detail which parties and coalitions were elected.

[4] BBC Monitoring Trans Caucasus Unit. 2018. ‘Armenian president-elect vows to continue incumbent’s policies’, March 3 (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[5] BBC Monitoring Trans Caucasus Unit. 2018. ‘Karabakh issue ‘resolved’, no need in talks with Baku – Armenian pundit’, March 5 (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[6] ARMINFO News Agency. 2018. ‘In parallel with the reduction of the powers of the president of the country, his apparatus will be reduced’, March 7 (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[7] Ani Mshetsyan. 2018. ‘Nikol Pashinyan: The only thing that can force Serzh Sargsyan to abandon the post of prime minister is the will of the people’. Arminfo News Agency, March 5 (retrieved through LexisNexis).

[8] Ibidem.

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