Most political parties in Armenia opposed to the current government appear to have agreed to participate in discussions of a controversial constitutional reform that will turn the country into a parliamentary republic.
This was announced by the ruling Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) after a series of meetings that President Serzh Sarkisian held with top members of the parties on Thursday.
Of the major Armenian parties only representatives of the Armenian National Congress (HAK) effectively refused to engage in any dialogue on changing the Constitution, as this opposition party led by former president Levon Ter-Petrosian appears to be strongly in favor of a presidential form of government.
Under the draft concept of constitutional amendments unveiled by a committee of experts last year Armenia will become a parliamentary republic with a powerful prime minister and a largely ceremonial president.
While some of the opposition parties themselves are known to have advocated the idea of Armenia’s having a parliamentary form of government, most fear lest President Sarkisian should use the change to remain in a senior government position after he has to leave his current post in 2018.
Sarkisian has pledged, however, not to seek such a post should the reform be carried out, but as leader of the ruling party he is certain to remain influential in Armenian politics even without a formal government position.
Still last year the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission gave a generally positive assessment to the draft concept, saying that the proposed changes in the Armenian Constitution would “strengthen democratic principles and establish the necessary conditions for ensuring the rule of law and respect for human rights.” At the same time, the commission noted that the transition to a parliamentary republic requires “broad consensus within society.”
Only one parliamentary minority party, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF), has so far openly backed the idea of reforming the Constitution to turn Armenia into a parliamentary republic. The other four minority factions in the Armenian parliament, including the HAK, the Prosperous Armenia Party (BHK), Heritage and Orinats Yerkir, have questioned the necessity of the reform.
Three of those opposition parties, including the HAK, the BHK, and Heritage, held a series of rallies in Yerevan and elsewhere in the country last fall demanding solutions to pressing economic and social problems as well as urging Sarkisian to abandon his plans to change the Basic Law.
The current administration’s plans for amending the Constitution appeared to be the catalyst for the dramatic showdown in February in which President Sarkisian and his ruling HHK effectively forced tycoon Gagik Tsarukian, one of the top opponents of the reform, to resign as BHK leader and retire from politics. Members of the BHK, which declared itself to be in opposition to the Sarkisian government after the change of the party’s leadership last week, have been less vocal in their opposition to the constitutional reform since then.
The BHK’s newly elected leader Naira Zohrabian and other senior members of the party also met with President Sarkisian on the issue of the constitutional reform yesterday.
After meeting with representatives of the BHK, the ARF, Orinats Yerkir, Heritage, Free Democrats, the Armenian National Movement and the United Labor Party, President Sarkisian in the evening presented the results of the meetings to senior members of his ruling HHK.
After the meeting of the HHK executive body, Deputy Parliament Speaker Hermine Naghdalian said that the purpose of Sarkisian’s meetings with representatives of other parties was to ensure their engagement in the broader discussions of the reform.
She said that the meetings were held in a “constructive atmosphere”, but acknowledged that some of the parties also conditions and proposals.
“But it was concluded after all the meetings that these discussions are really important and that they [the parties] should participate in these discussions,” Naghdalian said, adding that no specific agreements had been reached on several conditions advanced by some of the parties.
Speaking to RFE/RL’s Armenian Service (Azatutyun) on Thursday, senior member of the opposition Heritage party Armen Martirosian said that they had set a number of conditions to the government for engaging in discussions, including the transition from the current mixed system of parliamentary elections based on party-list and single-mandate constituency votes to a legislature elected solely on the party-list basis. Heritage also wants the names and addresses of citizens who go to the polls to be published after elections.
Government officials have insisted that abolishing elections from single-mandate constituencies will affect representation of provinces in the unicameral Armenian parliament, while the publication of lists of citizens who take part in the elections is against the principle of secret ballot.
HAK parliamentary leader Levon Zurabian, meanwhile, reiterated the party’s strong opposition to the constitutional reform and stressed that they will continue to oppose the changes even if they are left alone in this struggle.
The HHK’s Naghdalian also admitted that discussions with the HAK are “pointless”. “Because they see no grounds for such discussions,” she said.
Discussions regarding the concept of the constitution reform with political leaders and legal experts were set to continue on Friday.