Armenia at a Legislative Crossroad


Edmond Azadian

Edmond Azadian

By Edmond Y. Azadian

When President Obama launched his healthcare reform bill, he triggered a nationwide controversy. The most vocal opponents of the bill took their position in order to express their opposition to the president rather than the content of the bill. Therefore, any legislative move by the president seemed toxic.

To dramatize the controversy, political satirist Jon Stuart, the former host of Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” conducted a survey, asking people whether they favored Obamacare or Affordable Healthcare. Lo and behold, the latter turned out to be the winner. The farce, of course, is that the people were choosing the very same bill presented under two different labels.

If that degree of ignorance is tolerated in the most democratic country in the world, some latitude can be allowed for the electorate in Armenia, which is facing a referendum on constitutional reforms on December 6.

As of this writing, polls taken in Armenia indicate that 50 percent of the voting public is undecided. That may be the result of a variety of reasons: either the constitutional reforms have not been properly explained to the voting public or the voters are overwhelmed by the pressing demands of their livelihood — because of rampant poverty — or there is general apathy towards any political issues.

But since the constitution will determine the course of their daily lives in the future, it must be taken seriously so that the public does not miss this opportunity to make its position heard.

As complicated as those amendments may be, there are certain salient topics which are not beyond the comprehension of the ordinary citizen. One of those issues is the transformation of the government from a presidential democracy to a parliamentary system. Under the current system, the president is elected by the people and can only serve two five-year terms. The president retains single-handedly all power. In the parliamentary system, however, the president will be elected by the National Assembly or parliament, for a one term of seven years and he is no longer the commander-in-chief of the armed forces. That power will be conferred upon the prime minister. The presidency will become a mostly ceremonial post and the president will be accountable to the parliament.

The number of seats in the parliament will be reduced from 131 to 101 and political parties will compete to be elected to the parliament, rather than individuals campaigning for seats.

Under the current system, a proportion of the parliament is elected from the list of individual candidates and another group through party slates.

The government is, of course, promoting a yes vote, whereas the opposition is spearheading the no campaign.

The main argument of the opposition is that through the proposed amendments, President Serge Sargisian is planning to perpetuate his own rule. Armenia has in place a two-term limit for the president, thus Sargisian, who has run twice, cannot do so anymore. He has, incidentally, ruled out seeking the position of prime minister if the changes are adopted.

The viewpoint of the opposition gains some validity when we dissect Armenia’s political spectrum.

As the head of the Republican Party, Sargisian may indeed wield some influence because it is the public’s opinion that the Republican Party will continue to dominate the parliament for the foreseeable future.

But that cannot last forever, as it has been proven time and time again Armenia’s recent history shows that political parties have an ephemeral nature and they are anchored on oligarchs or powerful individuals rather than a set of beliefs or principles.

A case in point is Gagik Zaroukian’s Prosperous Armenia Party, which experienced a dramatic growth and importance in Armenia’s power structures, only to be pulverized when his business interests were threatened. As of now, it has become a marginal party hanging on to the coattails of the Republican Party.

Therefore, the transformation into a parliamentary system will mean progress in democracy, as the political parties mature and stand on their own, advocating their particular political philosophies or maintaining a platform.

But because Armenia has not reached that level of political sophistication yet, the road towards a more democratic system should not be blocked at this stage.

The constitution already underwent one level of transformation during Robert Kocharian’s administration in 2005, adopting the semi-presidential system.

The proposed constitutional reforms were launched in 2013 with the input of the experiences of more advanced democracies. The recommendations of the Venice Council have also been integrated in the proposed amendments. The Venice Council, which was created under the aegis of the Council of Europe, operates under the paradigm of “democracy through law.”

Former President Kocharian is opposing the constitutional changes, because, he insists, “the proposed amendments fail to provide the true ‘decentralization’ which is one of the purported aims of the reform.”

While Kocharian opposes the reforms based on principal, the opposition parties are promoting the “no” vote, on the principal of opposing every directive from the government.

The Armenian National Congress, headed by former president, Levon Ter-Petrosian, held its own rally to oppose the referendum.

Heritage Party founder Raffi Hovannisian and Founding Parliament headed by Jirair Sefilyan, are conducting their own “no” campaign.

The “no” campaign is not always based on substance; it is mostly motivated by politics, as it is revealed by the statement of one of the opposition leaders, Aram Manukyan, who recently visited Georgia, where the parliamentary system was adopted and the democratic process is experiencing its own growing pains.

“I have met members of political parties represented in the parliament, Georgia is facing serious problems today. They say it was not timely. I don’t mean at all that the parliamentary model is not good; it was just a matter of expediency.”

Manukyan added that he opposed the reforms because the country “is on the threshold of war.”

It may sound ironic that all three traditional parties have adopted an identical position supporting the “yes” vote. The ARF, Social Democratic Hunchakyan Party and the ADL have all expressed their positions and they have been siding with the administration. The reason they support the “yes” vote does not mean they are in the pocket of the present administration. As traditional parties, which have many years of experience under their belts, they see the prospect of future developments as the other parties mature and the parliamentary system becomes truly functional then there are opportunities of power sharing. The ARF has the added incentive of favoring the referendum because it has chosen to join the ruling party in a coalition.

During the remaining short time before the referendum, the undecided voters have to make up their minds. But the government is convinced that the yes position will carry the day on December 6. Otherwise, they would not have taken the chance.

One way or another, Armenia’s legislative drama will end on December 6.