Armenian Constitutional Battle

Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR)
Sept 15 2004

ARMENIAN CONSTITUTIONAL BATTLE

Parliament fights over the powers of the president.

By Naira Melkumian in Yerevan

The autumn session of the Armenian parliament which began this week
will be dominated by reform of the constitution, with a battle already
raging between the ruling coalition and the opposition.

Two proposed sets of changes to the constitution have been put forward,
one formulated by the three-party pro-government coalition and the
other by opposition deputy Arshak Sadoyan, leader of the National
Democratic Alliance of Armenia.

The main bone of contention is the division of powers between different
branches of government, with the pro-government coalition signalling
its desire to strengthen presidential powers.

The leader of the pro-presidential nationalist Dashnaktsutiun group
in parliament Levon Mkrtchian argues that the present situation in
the Caucasus requires strong presidential authority and there is no
case for a change to a more parliamentary system.

“The coalition’s proposal is proof of the strong position of the
president,” commented political analyst Stepan Safarian from the
Armenian Centre for National and International Studies.

Especially controversial is a proposed change whereby the president
can recommend a new government programme to parliament three times and
choose to dissolve parliament if it is rejected on the third occasion.

Sadoyan is proposing that on the third occasion parliament itself
should be able to form the government. A compromise proposal is being

discussed according to which if there is deadlock on the third attempt
the president can nominate a new government but it has to be approved

by parliament.

Armenia is currently under strong pressure from the Parliamentary
Assembly of the Council of Europe, which decided this week to debate
progress made on a series of obligations it put to the Yerevan
government (and also to Azerbaijan) at its October 4-8 session. The
government has agreed with the Council of Europe that it should make
amendments to its constitution before the end of 2004 and no later
than June 2005, by a national referendum.

A referendum held last year on a previous set of constitutional
amendments failed to receive sufficient support from voters. On coming
to power in 1998 Robert Kocharian pledged to reform Armenia’s 1995
constitution, but only drew up a package of proposals in 2003.

Tigran Torosian, deputy speaker of parliament and head of the working

group which is drafting the changes, told IWPR that the package
of amendments would be a significant step forward for Armenia,
guaranteeing “improvement of the constitutional mechanisms of the
realisation of rights and basic freedoms of an individual, the
introduction of a system of checks and balances in the government,
guarantees, the creation of an independent and unbiased judicial
system and local authorities”.

Leading human rights activist Avetik Ishkhanian, head of Armenia’s
Helsinki Committee, does not agree. “In the new drafts, human rights
are very declarative as there are no mechanisms to protect rights and

they only exist on paper,” he told IWPR.

Opposition deputy Shavarsh Kocharian of the Justice group in
parliament makes broader criticisms, saying that of 121 articles in
the constitution, only 20 are being substantially changed and only
four of these are changing in a positive direction.

Kocharian – who is no relation of the Armenian president – says he is

concerned that the pro-government coalition wants to increase the
number of presidential terms the head of state can serve from two to
three. Robert Kocharian is currently serving his second term as head
of state.

“The new amendments are definitely intended to increase the power of a
president, who has decided to keep himself permanently in power, like
the leaders of the Central Asian countries,” said Shavarsh Kocharian,
warning that this could turn Armenia into a “tyrannical state”.

Torosian rejected these charges, saying, “In 2003 when we were
working on the previous draft of constitutional changes, there was
a similarly absurd kind of talk but in actual fact nothing of this
kind was included in the draft. In the new draft there is no such
paragraph and there are no proposals to include it.

“This kind of talk comes from the sphere of parapsychology, not from
law-making and these people are obviously pursuing political goals.”

The differences on the constitution run not only between pro-government
parties and the opposition but within the two movements as well.

For example, the Dashnaktsutiun Party wants to see a completely
proportional electoral system in parliament, while its partner,
the Orinats Erkir Party, wants to preserve the existing balance of
80 per cent of seats elected via proportional representation and 20
per cent through constituencies.

Gurgen Arsenian, the leader of another small pro-government group
in parliament, the United Labour, surprised his coalition partners
by saying that his party withdrew its support for the constitutional
reforms in their current form and that they would come up with their
own proposals.

Meanwhile, some opposition members are saying that Sadoyan did not
agree his proposed constitutional amendments with his parliamentary
allies and that he is breaking an agreed opposition strategy of
boycotting legislative work in parliament.

Sadoyan told IWPR that his alternative proposals were in line with
party policy and that he would ignore the opposition boycott and
debate the issue in parliament.

Experts say there is very low confidence amongst the public in
Armenia’s constitution and how it can be enforced and almost no
public discussion of it. Even when it was first adopted in 1995,
Safarian said, “People doubted its legitimacy. They did not consider
it to be theirs

and did not take it seriously as they were not convinced that it had
an importance in their life. Certainly there is a need to revise the
constitution but people should understand it.”

Safarian said the parliamentary battles over the constitution were
“purely political competition” and politicians displayed little
evidence of caring about the public.

“I believe neither the government, nor politicians nor people
need a revision of the constitution,” Yerevan schoolteacher Stepan
Mnatsakanian told IWPR, speaking for many. “The problem is not the
laws we have but how they are enforced. Why spend time and money
improving the articles of the constitution when the most democratic
of them are broken.”

Naira Melkumian is a freelance journalist in Yerevan.

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