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By Emil Danielyan
In a widely anticipated decree, President Robert Kocharian has called a nationwide referendum on his package of amendments to Armenia’s constitution. The vote will take place on May 25, concurrently with parliamentary elections, the presidential press service announced on Tuesday.

The move was made possible by the Armenian parliament’s approval last week of the draft amendments which Kocharian says would curtail his sweeping constitutional powers and strengthen the legislature and the government. The president, for example, would be allowed to dissolve the National Assembly only in the event of its “inactivity,” and not at will as is the case now.

Kocharian’s political opponents, however, say the president will instead gain the authority to appoint more top government officials without the government’s consent. They also argue that he lacks the popular mandate to seek changes in the Armenian constitution adopted in 1995.

Kocharian won a second term in office in a controversial election last month criticized as deeply flawed by international observers. His opposition challenger, Stepan Demirchian, has refused to concede defeat and is challenging the official vote results in the Constitutional Court. Demirchian and his opposition allies are due to hold another anti-government rally in Yerevan during the official ceremony of Kocharian’s inauguration on Wednesday.

The opposition has already made it clear that it will urge supporters to vote against the proposed constitutional amendments.

Referendum is the only legal way of changing the Armenian constitution. Amendments need the backing of the simple majority of those taking in part in the voting. It will be deemed invalid if the voter turnout is below 50 percent. In addition, amendments can have a legal force only if they are backed by at least one third of some 2.4 million eligible voters.
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