On December 6, Armenian voters are being called upon to approve or reject a packet of constitutional amendments that the country's leadership says are intended as a further step toward democratization and facilitating a peaceful transfer of power.
Opposition parties reject that argument out of hand, construing the main proposed change -- the switch from a semipresidential to a parliamentary system in which the prime minister will wield most powers currently invested in the president, including serving as chief of staff of the armed forces in the event of war -- as a bid by incumbent President Serzh Sarkisian to continue to occupy the most powerful post in the country by switching to the post of prime minister after his second presidential term expires in 2018.
Sarkisian and other officials have repeatedly denied this. Indeed, the experience of neighboring Georgia, where billionaire oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili reportedly continues to call the shots two years after resigning as prime minister, even though he holds no official position in the ruling hierarchy, suggests that there is no need for Sarkisian to do so.
Former Foreign Minister Aleksandr Arzumanian, one of a very few opposition parliament members to have voted in favor of the draft amendments, has pointed out that if Sarkisian did want to stay on, "he can use the existing constitution to rig the parliamentary elections, win a parliamentary majority, and become prime minister."
It is, moreover, conceivable that the emasculation of the presidency was intended to serve an entirely different but no less specific purpose, namely, to preclude the return to power in a direct presidential election in 2018 of Sarkisian's predecessor and erstwhile ally, Robert Kocharian, with whom he is now (figuratively) at daggers drawn.
The Council of Europe's Venice Commission of experts on constitutional law described the curtailing of the presidential powers as "drastic," adding that they would be "almost only ceremonial, compared to the powers of presidents as guarantors of the constitution in other parliamentary regimes in Europe."
In addition, the proposed changes also envisage reducing from 131 to 101 the number of parliament deputies, all of whom would be elected under the proportional system.
In its preliminary evaluation of the proposed amendments, the Venice Commission expressed qualified approval of most of the planned constitutional amendments.
It did, however, point out that the proposal that in future the president (who may not be a member of any political party) should be elected for a single seven-year term by a specially appointed Electoral College "might open the way to such behind-the-scenes manipulations which [sic] could endanger the authority and legitimacy of the institution." That proposal was subsequently reworked to stipulate that the president will be elected by the parliament.
The commission also queried the affirmation that the Armenian Apostolic Church has "an exclusive mission" in the country's spiritual life. It said that wording could be interpreted as contradicting the right to freedom of belief upheld elsewhere in the constitution.
The commission's second preliminary evaluation listed its four primary objections to the draft amendments plus the changes made in the light of those objections. Those were reiterated in an interview given to the news portal Caucasian Knot on December 4, by an unidentified Venice Commission official.
The first concerns the minimum residency requirement for parliamentary election candidates, which in light of the commission's objection has been reduced from five to four years.
The second focuses on the controversial provision for a second round of voting in the event that one party fails to gain a "stable majority" in the National Assembly. The commission objected to enshrining that provision in the constitution, suggesting it would be more appropriate to write it into the Electoral Code. The provision has not, however, been removed from the draft amendments, although the wording has been slightly modified: instead of stipulating that a runoff vote "shall be held" between the two parties that garnered the most votes, the wording now reads "may be held."
Opposition parties protest that the provision risks institutionalizing a two-party system. Six parties are represented in the present parliament.
The third addressed the initial prohibition on forming new parliamentary factions during the whole term of the legislature. That prohibition has been removed, although a number of conditions must still be met in forming factions.
The fourth entails strengthening the independence of the judiciary. To that end, the proposed involvement of the parliament in appointing the chairman of the Court of Cassation has been dropped, and the majority needed in a vote of appointing judges to that court has been raised to three-fifths.
At the same time, Caucasian Knot's interlocutor pointed out, the final wording of two proposed amendments remains problematic. In its current phrasing, Article 53, on the procedures in the event that the president dies or becomes incapacitated, precludes Armenia's accession to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. And Article 41, according to which freedom of belief may be curtailed in the interests of upholding state security, contravenes Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
The amendments may nonetheless on the whole be "technically defensible on paper," to quote British scholar Laurence Broers.
But as Broers proceeds to demonstrate, given the extent to which Sarkisian's Republican Party of Armenia can and does plan and control political developments, this is nonetheless "a referendum for elite continuity, not meaningful institutional change." Consequently, the disparate opposition groups fighting desperately to thwart approval of the proposed changes have little chance of success.