Armenian parliament elects Armen Sarkissian as new president

Armenian parliament elects Armen Sarkissian as new president
Armen Sarkissian seen at a World Economic Forum event in Turkey in 2008.
By Carmen Valache in Berlin March 5, 2018

With 90 votes in favour, 10 against and one invalidated vote, the Armenian parliament voted on March 2 for Armen Sarkissian to become the country's next president.

A former physics professor at Cambridge and a longstanding ambassador to the UK, Sarkissian ran unopposed and has no political affiliation, but was endorsed for the post by outgoing President Serzh Sargsyan (no relation) and the ruling Republican Party (HHK). The result was largely expected. Not only did Sarkissian run unopposed while HHK controls the majority of votes in parliament, but the largest opposition party, Prosperous Armenia, also endorsed the candidate in the days leading up to the vote.

Sarkissian will take over from Sargsyan when the latter's second term in power expires on April 9, but will have significantly less powers compared to his predecessor. That is because, as per the results of a referendum in December 2015, Armenia will switch to a parliamentary republic come April, and most of the president's former responsibilities will be passed over to the prime minister who is appointed by the party that controls the majority in parliament. 

Opponents of the ruling party have criticised the December 2015 referendum, which was plagued by accusations of irregularities, by claiming that it was Sargsyan's attempt to consolidate his power and that of his party - Sargsyan is HHK's chairman - by staying on as prime minister with extended powers.

The move is very similar to other such changes of power in the region, most notably when it comes to the 2008 Russian presidential election when Dmitry Medvedev was elected president and Vladimir Putin became prime minister because he could not run for three consecutive terms as president under the constitution, although the latter was always rumoured to continue to wield the real power in the country. 

Sargsyan has not confirmed outright whether he will carry on as prime minister come April, but he is largely expected to do so.

Meanwhile, the fate of the current prime minister, Karen Karapetyan, is a source of speculation. Sargsyan appointed the former Gazprom executive in his position in September 2016, amidst week-long demonstrations in which protesters demanded that Sargsyan step down. Appointing Karapetyan, a progressive corporate leader who vowed to cut red tape and corruption, was therefore Sargsyan's attempt to save face and his own power.

The current prime minister has made a reduction in inefficiencies in the public sector and the promotion of investment as the centrepieces of his agenda, and has endeared himself to some powerful Armenian businessmen living in the diaspora, such as billionaire real estate tycoon Samvel Karapetyan (no relation).

It is unclear, therefore, how Karen Karapetyan could be sidelined without upsetting his rich supporters, and while securing their continued investments in Armenia.

As for the new president, his main responsibilities will be limited to signing international treatises on behalf of Armenia, appointing diplomatic staff and awarding distinctions to worthy citizens. Even the oversight of the armed forces, an important responsibility of former presidents, has been stripped away, and the new head of state will only be able to appoint high officials recommended by the prime minister. 

In an address to parliament after the vote, Sarkissian said that he would use "all his knowledge and experience" to serve Armenia. "I expect your contribution and participation, as well as contribution and participation of all citizens in the important victories of the future," he added.