By Karine Kalantarian
A political party led by former Foreign Minister Raffi Hovannisian joined Armenia’s leading opposition groups on Tuesday in rejecting President Robert Kocharian’s package of constitutional amendments that will be put to a referendum in November.
In a written statement, the Zharangutyun (Heritage) party dismissed the proposed changes as a “collection of half-measures” and said the ruling regime lacks the legitimacy to amend the Armenian constitution in the first place.
“The crown of illegitimacy earned by our country’s authorities beginning ten years ago and cresting in 2003 is not commensurate even with the lowest threshold required to posit constitutional amendments for an accountable public vote,” it said.
Zharangutyun also warned the authorities against rigging the upcoming referendum. “We have already crossed the final frontier of forging and being forged, deceiving and self-deceiving. The world is not dumb, and Armenia is not a gaming hall,” it said.
“Any breach or falsehood, whether during the campaign, on election day or in the counting, will strike a blow to the Republic of Armenia, its esteem and future, its every citizen,” added the statement.
The statement followed a late-night meeting on Monday of the party’s ruling board chaired by Hovannisian. It deals another blow to Kocharian’s and his governing coalition’s hopes to garner sufficient popular support for their draft amendments that are aimed at somewhat restricting sweeping powers enjoyed by the head of state.
The Council of Europe, the European Union and the United States, which have endorsed the amendments, believe that constitutional reform is necessary for the democratization of Armenia’s flawed political system. However, the Armenian opposition considers the reform cosmetic and says far important is the enforcement of the existing laws that provide for free elections and human rights.
“The Constitution is not a game,” read the Zharangutyun statement. “It is not a means or excuse to cling to a political seat or to clarify private relationships. It is not a veneer to gloss over cracks in the republican home and to hide societal sicknesses.”
However, it was not clear whether Hovannisian will be urging supporters to take part in the referendum and vote against the amendments or to boycott it. A senior Zharangutyun member, Vartan Khachatrian, told RFE/RL that the party will clarify its position after negotiations with allied opposition groups represented in parliament.
The Artarutyun (Justice) alliance and the National Unity Party are strongly opposed to Kocharian’s constitutional changes but remain undecided on how to scuttle their passage. A leading member of Artarutyun, Vazgen Manukian, made a case last week for a boycott, saying that it would complicate a possible falsification of the referendum tentatively scheduled for November 20.
A high voter turnout is vital for the success of the reform as the amendments have to be backed by at least one third of Armenia’s 2.4 million eligible voters. Opinion polls suggest that most Armenians would not bother to vote if the referendum was held now. Parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian admitted last week that a vast majority of voters “do not care about it at all.”
According to Hovannes Hovannisian, the leader of a small pro-Western opposition party, the opposition forces will reach consensus on the issue soon. “The opposition parties are doomed to unity on the constitution,” he said. “I think that those processes have already started in Armenia. The public will soon know about them.”