Constitutional crisis looms in Armenia

Constitutional crisis looms in Armenia
By Ben Aris in Berlin April 26, 2018

Armenians were staying on the streets for another day on April 26 as the political crisis in the country moved into the next phase – getting an opposition representative appointed as interim prime minister who can organise and oversee a free and fair general election that would complete the work of the Armenian Velvet Revolution.

Protesters have already managed to oust recently elected prime minister Serzh Sarksyan on April 23, having accused him of manipulating the constitution and elections to make himself leader for life. Now according to the Armenian constitution the parliamentary political fractions have to propose a new candidate within seven days, or by April 30.

MP and de facto leader of the opposition Nikol Pashinian is calling for daily public acts of disobedience that are becoming increasingly more organised and coordinated. He asked truck drivers to blockade the capital in a show of force that could bring the country to a standstill if this sort of action escalates.

In the meantime the ruling Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) has nominated Acting Prime Minister Karen Karepetyan as their candidate for interim prime minister. Karepetyan is also a former prime minister.

However, Pashinian has demanded that no one from HHK stand for the job of interim prime minister and has said he would take the job himself, “if the people ask me to.”

A potential constitutional crisis is now in the offing. 

If politicians do stick to the constitution then Pashinian and opposition parties are 13 votes short of the 53 seats they need in the legislature to appoint their own candidate.

The ruling HHK with 58 seats is in a position to block any candidate from the opposition and ram through their own choice, possibly confirming Karepetyan in his current position. The leader of the HHK faction Vahram Baghdasaryan said that his party will not vote for Pashinian.

Pashinian’s own party Yelk has only nine seats and the other leading opposition party Prosperous Armenia (also know by the name of its founder and sponsor, businessman Gagik Tsarukyan) has 31. Another seven seats belong to the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun) faction, which on April 26 said it was withdrawing form its coalition with HHK.

"Bearing in mind the current situation, we announce the termination of our participation in the political coalition," Dashnaktsutyun said in a statement, adding that parliament should elect a prime minister who "enjoys the people's confidence."

Yelk has already officially nominated Pashinian as its candidate for prime minister as the “people’s candidate” and so far the process is running according to the constitutional rules.

But even if all these parties united against HHK they don't have enough votes to force a new prime minister on the ruling elite.

The people’s choice? 

In this case Pashinian has threatened to take the vote for the prime minister to the street by holding a rally in Republic Square and charging the crowd with the task of choosing the prime minister, which is clearly outside of the constitution.

If this scenario plays out it is not clear what will happen next. The acting government would be within its rights to claim an attempted coup and send in the troops. Russia’s reaction is also unclear. Given the debacle in Ukraine, which went down the popular crowd-based route to oust Viktor Yanukovych from the presidency, rather than impeach him, which would have been the constitutional route – it is unlikely that Russia will send any physical or military aid to the ruling party. However, given Russia’s machinations in Ukraine it has other options, if it feels it needs a “friendly” administration.

Russian President Vladimir Putin called his Armenian counterpart on April 25 and said that Armenia should “stay within the framework of the constitution,” the Kremlin’s first concrete statement on its policy to the revolution which has been running for about two weeks.

"Vladimir Putin and [Armenian President] Armen Sarkisian emphasised that to overcome the internal crisis as soon as possible, it is of importance to show restraint and responsibility and readiness to solve the existing problems through constructive dialogue in strict compliance with the constitution," the Kremlin said.

For his part Pashinian has gone out of his way to make it clear that he will maintain good relations with Moscow and also that making a Ukraine-esque “pivot to the west” is not a goal for his would-be administration. Given Armenia’s relatively small size and general poverty it seems possible that this would satisfy Moscow, which has been happy to sit on the sidelines so far. Pashinian said at a rally on April 25 that Karapetyan was not backed by Moscow.

Pashinian also claimed at the same rally that some lawmakers from HHK were willing to change sides and this would be the best result. Relatively few HHK deputies need to jump ship in order have a lawful change at the top. But the result remains up in the air. Demonstrators at the rally went further and demanded the resignation of all representatives of the ruling party.

However, the casually dressed Pashinian also explicitly threatened the ruling elite that he would call on the crowds to “blockade” the parliamentary buildings if HHK attempted to nominate one of their own as prime minister, which could lead to violence.

"From this moment, I also warn Karen Karapetyan not to even enter any government building," Pashinian told the rally, reports RFE/RL. "We, the people, have won, and no one can dare doubt this fact."

“Some 80 trucks are gathered on the Sevan-Yerevan highway. I call on the drivers to come to Yerevan and block all streets here,” Pashinian said to the crowd. He also called for labour and student strikes.

In an ominous sign the government has started to deploy police in the capital.

HHK has said little about its intentions. Pashinian and Karepetyan were due to meet on April 24 to discuss the details of the transition but the meeting was cancelled after Karepetyan rejected Pashinian’s demand that he would set the agenda and was not open to negotiations.

HHK has said they are open to fresh elections, but also suggested that the party wants to remain in charge in the interim – presumably that includes continuing to occupy the post of prime minister with one of their own, something that the protesters have dismissed out of hand.

"The logical solution is that political parties -- within the framework of our constitution and the law -- sit down and discuss whether there is a need for early elections" and when they could be held, Karapetyan told a news conference on April 25.

There is now a tense stand off as both sides manoeuvre for advantage. More defections from HHK to Pashinian’s cause could bring about a rapid and peaceful conclusion, but that result is not a given.

In the meantime President Sarkisian (no relation to the previous prime minister), who holds a largely ceremonial job, has offered to intervene with both sides in an attempt to broker a peaceful compromise.

On balance the protesters still have the upper hand. In addition to Dashnaktsutyun’s decision to quit the ruling coalition and the possible defection of an unknown number of HHK deputies, some of Armenia’s biggest businesses have thrown in their lot with the protestors.

The Tsarukyan party is lead by local oligarch Gagik Tsarukian, who has already come out in clear support for Pashinian and told the party’s membership to “be with the people.” Other smaller parties with no parliamentary seats have also thrown their support behind Yelk.

HHK is circling its wagons and there was a late night meeting on April 25 between Karepetyan and other top HHK deputies with former prime minister Sargsyan. The deputies said in a statement HHK is prepared to discuss any issue with the opposition if there are “no preconditions” to the meeting. HHK also announced that Sargsyan will be replaced as party chairman.

At this stage it looks like the crisis will spill over into next week. President of the Armenian National Assembly Ara Babloyan announced on April 26 that he was calling a meeting of the National Assembly for a special session to discuss the issue of prime minister's election on May 1 at 12pm – the day after the April 30 deadline set by the constitution for parliament to choose a new candidate.