Armenians say 'Yes' to changes no-one asked for

Armenians say 'Yes' to changes no-one asked for
By Monica Ellena December 7, 2015

In Vanadzor, Armenia’s third largest city and something of a hotbed of opposition to President Serzh Sargsyan, locals voted largely “No” in the country’s referendum on constitutional changes on December 6th amidst widespread political disillusionment.

The constitutional reforms, which were initiated in 2013 by the ruling Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) of President Sargsyan, curb the powers of the historically-strong president and transfer them to the prime minister and parliament, which the HHK currently dominates.

Supporters maintain that the shift will strengthen democracy in the ex-Soviet state and prevent political instability. However, opponents claim that the changes are designed to perpetuate Sarksyan’s rule as they will allow him to slip into an enhanced prime ministerial role once his second, and last term allowed by law, ends in 2018.

“Politicians are cheaters, I never believed them, and never will,” shrugs Yervand, a onetime worker at one of the city’s now-defunct factories who now in his late 60s works as an occasional laborer at the shuka, the bustling city market, one of the busiest in Armenia. On a good day he can make AMD4,000 (€7.50); on a bad day he sits idle waiting for work.

Pre-independence, Vanadzor was a major industrial city, with near full employment for its then 150,000-odd population in the chemical plants that had fuelled the USSR’s industrial engine since 1929.

However, its prosperity dissolved with the Soviet Union, as its chemical complex failed to evolve. The 1990s, the first decade of Armenia’s refounded sovereignty, brought a war with neighbouring Azerbaijan over the mainly Armenian-populated region of Nagorno-Karabakh, a deadly earthquake, and an economic blockade from Turkey. Add in a pervasively corrupted political elite and independence spelt collapse for Vanadzor’s industry.

Today’s population has shrunk to 86,000 according to the 2011 census and much of the valley below the town is a sprawling industrial wasteland, with mile after mile of decrepit factory buildings. Once an exemplary chemical plant, Vanadzor-Kimprom is now producing nothing more than ever-mounting debt and arrears for the handful of workers still on the payroll.

At every demonstration, the government routinely promises to re-launch the production. Like many, Yervand, doesn’t believe it and on Sunday he voted “No”.

But Vanadzor is an opposition outpost. In the 2012 parliamentary election the district voted for Edmond Marukyan, an independent non-partisan human rights lawyer who was labelled the “Kinder surprise” of the ballot after he cleanly defeated the government candidates.

Around the country, results from the Central Election Commission (CEC)  show that a majority – 63% – of the total of 1,303,466 Armenians who cast their ballots voted “Yes”.

According to the CEC, 50.5% of the 2.5mn eligible voters cast ballots, just over the 50% threshold. Turnout in the capital Yerevan stood at 46%, while in Gyumri and Vanadzor, the second and third largest cities, it was below 40%.

Street apathy, cyberspace activism

Many observers have denounced the vote as marred by unprecedented number of violations and have called the outcome illegitimate. The No front, a varied group of civic activists and opposition political parties headed by the Armenian National Congress (HAK), denounced what they alleged was widespread fraud through ballot-box stuffing, multiple voting, and vote buying.

Questioned by a journalist during the commemoration of the 27th anniversary of the deadly earthquake in Spitak, Prime Minister Hovik Abrahamyan dismissed the accusation of fraud, as did the HHK spokesperson Eduard Sharmazanov, who told RFE/RL’s Armenian service that "some irregularities may have happened, but one, two or three cases should not be seen as a pattern”.

Reports from local media do show inconsistencies – for example, according to Arka News the number of eligible voters was set at 2,567,047 and yet 2,640,000 ballots were distributed. The Gyumri-based Compass research centre also revealed inaccuracies in the voters’ lists ahead of the vote.

The Citizen Observer Initiative, a coalition of independent NGOs set up in 2013, organised a monitoring network and recorded violations across the country, including government proxies making sure civil servants would participate, according to Anna Chilingaryan, a human rights lawyer from Vanadzor's Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly, who monitored the vote.

The hashtag #Armref15 trended on social media, carrying momentum from the Electric Yerevan demonstrations which attracted up to 20,000 people. Activists posted videos of ballot stuffing, abuse of polling stations’ staff against journalists and observers, and other irregularities of the electoral code.

Protests ahead of the ballots drew up to 3,000 people to the streets in the capital, but failed to gain real traction outside Yerevan. An activist told bne IntelliNews “we’re building the changes, give us some time…” 

Michael Cecire, associated scholar on democratic transitions at the Philadelphia-based Foreign Policy Research Institute, told bne IntelliNews that “for the No Campaign, it may be enough that they show well in the referendum to demonstrate that they remain a force and that the civil infrastructure they developed during Electric Yerevan remains intact”.

In Putin’s footsteps?

The constitutional changes are a curate’s egg. The full package of changes are wide-ranging, effectively amending most of the constitution except for the two first chapters. However, the debate has focused on those amendments altering the political identity of the small landlocked nation of 2.9mn from a presidential to a parliamentary system.

The reform shrinks the parliament – from 131 to 101 seats – and the party with the majority is vested with forming the government and appointing a prime minister with expanded executive powers who will also serve as supreme commander of the armed forces.

The Venice Commission, the Council of Europe’s advisory body of constitutional experts, has formally approved the changes, but nevertheless labelled the change in the role of the president as drastic. No longer elected by popular vote, but by the parliament, the president will have a ceremonial role and will stay only once in the job for seven years instead of the current five.

A monitoring delegation of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe said there was "little public debate" around the referendum and the "relatively low turn-out, around 50% of the population, reflects the fact that the referendum was driven by political interests instead of the needs of the Armenian public".

The new constitution introduces the idea of a stable majority as conducive for “peaceful regime changes” and states that “if no stable parliamentary majority is formed as a result of an election or through building of a political coalition, a second round of election may be held”.

Arman Musinyan, HAK’s spokersperson, told bne IntelliNews that “the expression of stable majority contradicts the very concept of democracy” and paves the way for a one-party, one-man rule.

Other critics question the very need for the reforms. “There was no public discussion, nor demand for such changes,”Armen Grygoryan, coordinator of the apolitical civic movement No Pasaran which campaigned for a “No” vote, told bne IntelliNews. “People ask to respect and implement the current constitution, not to change it. The new charter will just cement the current president’s power grab.”

A shrewd former military officer, 61-years-old Sarkisyan has been president since winning elections in 2008 during which there were bloody clashes between police and supporters of the defeated opposition candidate, in which 10 people died. The HHK has kept a grip on power since 2000.

After weeks of denial, in a TV interview ahead of the ballot Sargsyan refused to confirm earlier pledges not to seek the premiership (or speaker of the parliament post) under the revised document, stating he’ll discuss it with his party should the HHK retain majority after the 2017 parliamentary vote.

But Armenia’s desire for stability is not out of the ordinary” as it is in a war-like state with its neighbour Azerbaijan over the Armenian-populated region of Nagorno-Karabakh and it has experienced a great deal of insecurity regarding its political legitimacy, argues Kathleen Weinberger, fellow at the Yerevan-based Regional Studies Centre.

Cecire also notes that in the abstract the amendments are not “necessarily bad” as the proposed system bolsters the role of the parliament and helps to prevent the emergence of a strong man in the presidency.

However, he adds that the practice of shifting powers from the president to the prime minister “has become something of fad among ‘competitive authoritarian’ systems seeking to simultaneously bolster their democratic bona fides while simultaneously enabling regime continuity”.

Examples of similar political facelifts to secure succession abound in the former Soviet space – starting from Russia where President Vladimir Putin, a key ally of Sargsyan’s, “temporarily decamped to the premiership but was widely seen as still holding the reins of power”. Neighbouring Georgia also switched to a parliamentary system in 2010 - the move, which many saw as an attempt of then President Mikheil Saakashvili to stay in power beyond his last term, backfired as his party was defeated at the ballot box in 2012. Azerbaijan and Belarus staged similar constitutional makeovers.

A few smaller opposition parties nevertheless support Armenia’s constitutional reforms as they believe it will give them a greater say in the way the country is governed.

“The first independent republic of Armenia of 1919 had a parliamentary system and we’ve been advocating for a similar structure since 1991 as it grants larger democratic participation,” Hrachik Sugiasyan a representative of the Armenian Revolutionary Group (ARD or Dashnaktutyan), told bne IntelliNews while observing the voting process at station 30/14 in Vanadzor.

Tigran Abovayan, 28, a Vanadzor-born and Texas-educated investment banker, also backed the reform. “So many people depended on the factories and lost their jobs that blaming those in power, whoever they were, has become a constant political choice here,” he explains. Tigran voted “Yes” as he maintains the changes are part of the country’s path to become a full democracy. “A lot needs to be done to improve the situation, starting from the economy,” he said. “These changes are part of that process.”

Outside the market, waiting for work in the snow, Yervand, disagrees. “Give us jobs, not a new constitution,” he mutters.