(By Gaidz Minassian)
Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian’s decision about creating a second chamber in the Armenian parliament with the participation of elected representatives of the Diaspora can be welcomed. As one of the first scholars to have spoken in favor of upgrading the political system in Armenia, I think it is worth pointing out once again the advantages and the goals of a bicameral parliamentary system.
Many modern states are based on a bicameral parliamentary system and one of the leaders of the [opposition] Armenian National Congress Aram Manukian is erroneous in his statement that “only federal states, confederations and multi-ethnic countries have bicameral parliaments”. As far as I know, France, Italy, Spain and Great Britain, which are unitary rather than federal states, have bicameral legislative systems.
The proposal of structural reform by the president should first of all give prominence to the country’s provinces. It is necessary that the Senate be formed of senators elected from provinces, and not just be a body where Diaspora communities will be represented. After all, why create a second chamber? There are three main reasons for doing that:
- More stability: the second chamber strengthens the country’s domestic stability and promotes the state-society relationship as well as consolidates social unity, which could provide more effective underpinnings for the sense of nationality and civic duty. In addition, for the consolidation of the republican structures it is necessary to distribute power among different system-forming bodies thereby improving the balance among different wings of power instead of concentrating the entire power in the hands of one individual (the president of the republic) and one branch of power (the executive power). Had Armenia had a second parliamentary chamber on October 27, 1999 [when eight state officials were assassinated in a gunman attack on the National Assembly], not all of the system structures would have suffered and the government would have continued to function properly. And one of the goals of the future structural reform will be to reduce the magnitude of social protest that claims human lives and causes material damage, thus undermining Armenia’s international prestige.
- More democracy: a bicameral parliamentary system is an additional guarantee of democracy and increases the role of the Parliament. So, long live the bicameral parliament! Passing from one chamber to the other (with the National Assembly holding the decisive vote) legislation improves its quality, and the principle of separation of powers is even more emphasized. Now that Armenia is going through the crisis of unity, the creation of a Senate could become one of the solutions to the problem of national consolidation around one structure, since this method of strengthening the legislative power ensures the best representation of political parties, even more increasing their role. This would also make it possible to get rid of the Soviet structural legacy and the Communist legislative model and would symbolize the completion of the stage of post-Soviet transition.
- More professionalism. Turning the Senate into a chamber of representatives of [Armenian] provinces and the Diaspora, the Armenian authorities demonstrate the will of ensuring more local government transparency and flexibility in organizing power between the center and provinces. The new structural changes, maintaining the balance, create transparency of activities of government agencies, contributing to the fight against corruption. And finally, as a result of the establishment of new structures formed through a universal electoral system and on the principle of not combining mandates, the political class in the Republic of Armenia will have a source of new personnel. This circumstance is very important in the socio-political aspect, since the Armenian society is known to be very much politicized.
All of this will be effective only if senators are elected for a five-year term, by universal suffrage, and with the entry threshold of at least 1 percent of the vote. To allow for possible social discontent and in order to avoid possible abuse the Senate should be ‘refreshed’ once every 2.5 years.
So how do deal with the matter? First of all, it would be useful to organize public discussions, enabling any person to fully understand the meaning of the new reform, then organize a scientific conference where the challenges of the reform would be discussed, since systemic changes also imply changing the Constitution. Are the authorities prepared to hold a constitutional referendum before the next parliamentary or presidential elections?
What are the risks of such a reform? Apart from a possible war and political tensions, numerous challenges will be raised to this reform that involves Diaspora participation:
- Shall Diaspora voters be also citizens of the Republic of Armenia? And approximately how many of them have Armenian passports? (Clearly the number of such dual citizens is not high);
- in that case, do all of the states that have an Armenian Diaspora accept dual citizenship?
- What is the legislation related to military duty in those countries? It is also necessary to avoid a rift within the Diaspora.
- As for the security of the country... What impact could the active involvement of the Diaspora (especially the [Armenian] communities of the United States and Russia) have on the political life of the Republic of Armenia?
All these questions have answers, and it is time these questions were discussed.
And finally, let’s use this structural reform and a possible referendum to put the Public Council, a body that has existed for three years, on a constitutional basis, giving it the status of a State Council - a body that, by the French example, will differ from the Constitutional Council.
The co-existence of the National Assembly (lower chamber) and the Senate (upper chamber), with the National Assembly having supremacy, may only give advantages, clearing the way for a stable, democratic and modern new Armenia. Gaidz Minassian
is a candidate of political sciences who lectures at the Paris School of Political Studies, in France
(Translation from French into Armenian by Lilit Vardanyan; translation from Armenian into English by Suren Musayelyan)