For the third time in its history as an independent republic, Armenia held a referendum to amend its constitution. Slightly more than half of the nation’s eligible voters, 1.3 million Armenians participated in the December 6 popular vote. Among them, nearly two-thirds—or 63.4 percent voted in favor of amending the constitution to transform Armenia from a semi-presidential to a parliamentary republic.
The current government, which has nurtured the reform, proposed the amendments as a further step toward democratization and the peaceful transition of power. Following the vote, President Serzh Sargsyan heralded the result as a new stage in the nation’s development, marked by “the presence of a strong government and a strong opposition, the raising of the role of political parties, [and] new opportunities for their development.”
The approved changes to the constitution consolidate Armenia’s transition towards full parliamentarianism from the semi-presidential form of government that had been in place in Armenia since the 2005 amendments that somewhat reduced the thereto-sweeping powers of the president.
What will change?
Under the new arrangement, the president will see his powers drastically curtailed. The president will no longer be elected by popular vote but rather by the votes of the members of the National Assembly. The Assembly—not the president—will set the pace for government decision-making. Elected by members of the legislature, the president’s role will be reduced to largely a ceremonial figure – much like the presidential position in Germany, Italy, or Israel. The president will furthermore be limited to serve only one seven-year term (as opposed to two five-year terms) and shall not be affiliated with any political party during his tenure.
The post of prime minister, appointed by the majority party or a coalition of parties that win the general election, will instead serve as the active head of the executive. Under the reformed constitution, the government—as a collective body—will effectively function as the “supreme commander-in-chief,” with the exception of wartime when ultimate authority would still rest with the prime minister.
The amendments would also reduce the size of the Armenia’s National Assembly to 101 members—with a five-year term elected entirely under an all-proportional system of representation. Currently the national assembly consists of 131 members, 90 of whom are elected by party lists and 41 from single-seat constituencies. Representatives of the opposition have long criticized these “majoritarian” ballots as an impediment to the democratic political process and a major source of vote rigging. They also regard the ballots as a tool for the ruling party to ensure its majority even if it fails to succeed through party-list elections.
The changes to the constitution also address concerns relating to the judicial appointment process and the perception of its lack of independence. Under the pre-amended constitution, the president is given the responsibility to appoint and terminate the judges of the Court of Cassation—the highest in the three-tier judicial system of Armenia, in addition to all judges of the two lower chambers—the courts of the first instance and the courts of appeal. The president also had the authority to appoint four of the five members of the Constitutional Court.
“There is a widespread opinion in our society that all court verdicts and rulings before publication pass through 26 Baghramyan Street” (the presidential office), noted Sargsyan. “Why is that? The reason is simple: all judges are appointed by the President of the Republic.”
Under the amended constitution, the National Assembly will now elect members of the constitutional court by a three-fifths vote. Judges of the Court of Cassation will still be appointed by the President, albeit only after nomination by the National Assembly.
The constitutional reforms mark a major shift in the perception and implementation of public administration, and will require amendments to virtually all current laws pertaining to institutions, including the electoral code in order to bring them in conformity with the amended constitution. Accordingly, the application of key articles regarding government institutions will take effect gradually in the next electoral cycle, beginning after the 2017 parliamentary elections, with the entire process expected to be completed only by the time Sargsyan leaves office in April 2018.
The Venice Commission, a Council of Europe body of constitutional experts that advises the governments of member states on legal reforms, largely endorsed the final version of Armenia’s constitutional amendments, affirming that they were “in line with international standards.”
Government officials have also acknowledged that the new system could provide avenues for a more peaceful change of power in Armenia in the future. They argue that the elimination of direct “winner-takes-all” presidential elections will help avoid violent post-election street protests that took place during the past three elections.
During the campaign in the run-up to the referendum, the opposition claimed the true intention behind the reforms was to enable President Sargsyan to hang on to power in some other capacity such as prime minister beyond 2018 as the Constitution prohibited him form seeking a third term.
Sargsyan though pledged not to seek any top government post after retiring as president, affirming prior to the referendum that “there cannot be a shadow leadership in our country.”
Many political observers however, agree that to continue to have political clout and exert a considerable amount of influence on domestic politics Sargsyan, who is now 61, will not need to hold a formal post as long as he remains the leader of the Republican Party of Armenia (RPA) and as long as the party retains its majority in the National Assembly.
Not all the opposition parties lined up against the constitutional reforms. The Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF)—a strong proponent of a parliamentary system of government in Armenia since independence—even conducted a “yes” campaign ahead of the referendum. Its representatives described the shift envisaged by the constitutional amendments as a “new beginning” for Armenia. “A quarter century after independence was achieved, Armenia still lacks real democracy, power is hyper-centralized, the principle of the rule of law does not properly function, the courts are not free and impartial, and an effective governing system has not yet been established,” read the promotional pamphlet released by the ARF Supreme Body of Armenia. The party also stressed that the constitutional reform was necessary to create a “just, democratic, and social country.”
From a legal standpoint, Armenia’s reformed constitution reflects progress toward a more democratic rule. The extent to which those reforms yield meaningful institutional change will only be determined by how President Sargsyan’s ruling RPA handles the future transition of power, beginning in 2017 with parliamentary elections and culminating in the April 2018 election of Armenia’s next president.
Suren Musayelyan is deputy editor of ArmeniaNow.com online daily.