CAUCASUS BLOG: Armenia's president consolidates his rule

By bne IntelliNews October 7, 2015

Carmen Valache in Istanbul -


The Armenian government’s push to change the country’s political system from a semi-presidential one to a parliamentary republic looks likely to entrench the dominance of President Serzh Sargsyan’s ruling Republican Party (HHK).  

Parliament passed a bill on October 5 to call a referendum on the changes in December, which some opposition parties and observers argue could enable Sargsyan and his governing Republican Party of Armenia to monopolise power. "If we vote for those changes, it will be our last vote," Aram Manukian, leader of the opposition Armenian National Congress (HAK) party, told protesters gathered in Yerevan's Liberty Square. "Such an outcome at the referendum would constitutionally perpetuate Serzh Sargsyan and his Republican Party's rule." 

However, Sargysan is currently denying that he will even run for office after his second and last term finishes in 2018, and says that the constitutional change is merely aimed at consolidating democracy in the country. 

Despite the incumbent's denials, the perseverance with which he has pursued this legislative reform since last September, and the vigour with which he has sidelined any opposition to it, even when it came from former allies, suggests that more is at stake than he admits.

In March, the leader of the largest opposition party, Prosperous Armenia (BHK), was forced into quitting politics; his departure then led to a sudden volte-face in BHK's position on the constitutional change, and its deputies voted for the referendum on October 5. So did another large opposition party, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF- Dashnakstutyun), as well as many deputies affiliated with smaller opposition parties.

The result of HHK's behind-the-scenes efforts was unequivocal: the bill to hold the referendum passed with 104 votes for, 10 against, and three abstentions.

Calling the shots

Regardless of who will be at its helm, HHK will undoubtedly benefit from the constitutional change. The HHK, which has been a member of the governing coalition since the 1990s and the governing party since 1999, now faces a BHK still in a deep leadership and identity crisis, so it is likely to dominate parliament for the near future.

Under the reform, most of the president's executive powers will be passed to parliament, and the current five-year, two-term limit will be replaced by a seven-year, one-term limit for the incumbent. The presidency would become a largely ceremonial post, and would be appointed by the parliament.

Another key aspect of the legislative package that will benefit the HHK is that it requires that one single party secure at least 40% of the votes in the first round of elections in order to form a government. If no party reaches that percentage of votes, then a second round of elections would be held among the two parties with the most votes in the first round, and the winner in the second round would be awarded enough seats in parliament to ensure a 54% majority. 

This complicated scheme would prevent opposition parties from participating in government, because none is able to secure such a high number of votes at the moment, and it would enable the HHK to single-handedly call the shots in Armenian politics for the foreseeable future.

Yet Sargsyan is not likely to become another one of the CIS' lifelong dictators, according to Richard Giragosian, director at the Regional Studies Centre, an independent Yerevan-based think-tank. "It would be hard for Sargsyan to disavow his pledge not to run for office again. This is more about strengthening the hand of his successor government, not his own,” he tells bne IntelliNews. "Sargsyan has always been the power behind the throne - defence minister, former KGB chief. Becoming president was the aberration in his career, and he is not particularly happy in the position, so I think he will go back to the shadows. He will maintain power and influence, but no longer seek such a public position."

Moreover, some opposition parties and observers argue that in the longer term the reform could actually have a positive impact on democratic governance, by creating an environment for the development of a stronger executive to tackle the country’s chronic problems. 

Disillusioned and disengaged

Armenia has managed to preserve a precarious democracy for the better part of the last two decades, seeking – if often failing  to balance its high dependence on Russia for trade, remittances, investment and defence, with its relations with the West.

While Armenia rejected a free trade deal with the EU in favour of joining the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) earlier this year, the HHK continues to maintain a semblance of democracy for the sake of Armenia's large disapora  a large part of which resides in Europe and North America  and its Western trade and aid partners. That is why, perhaps, Yerevan made sure to get the approval of the Venice Commission, the Council of Europe body that oversees constitutional law, on the legislative package before it submitted it to parliamentary vote. 

But the HHK's interest in democracy is shallow, and the Armenian public is too worried about the threat of war with neighbouring Azerbaijan to care much. The constant threats from neighbouring Azerbaijan, with which Armenia has been in a state of frozen conflict since 1994, and Baku's purchase of $4bn worth of armaments from Russia in the last two years has deflected Armenians' attention away from democracy and onto the prospects of war.

The civic response to the referendum is therefore unlikely to escalate, according to Giragosian. "Given the serious lack of public trust and confidence in the Armenian government, public opinion is largely sceptical and generally uninterested in the proposed constitutional amendments," he says, adding that the "sudden sense of political urgency driving these reforms has triggered a degree of mistrust, with supporters (of the reform) doing far too little to define or defend the need for the constitutional reforms themselves, and failing to explain the timing of the effort to the general public."

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