The Armenian authorities have pledged to make “considerable changes” in their draft constitutional amendments in response to objections voiced by the Venice Commission, officials from the Council of Europe body said on Tuesday.
The three legal experts visited Yerevan just days after President Serzh Sarkisian formally approved a package of amendments drafted by a state commission that was formed by him two years ago. It would turn Armenia in 2018 into a parliamentary republic with a largely ceremonial president and a much more powerful parliament and prime minister.
“We had discussions in which we made concrete points,” one of the visiting Venice Commission experts, Christoph Grabenwarter, said of their talks with President Serzh Sarkisian and members of the presidential commission on constitutional reform. “We got the answers that these concrete points will be taken on board.”
“From the wording [of the asnwers] we received, we firmly proceed from the assumption that there will be considerable changes,” Grabenwarter told a news conference.
Another Venice Commission representative, Aivars Endzins, said they specifically called for the removal of a highly contentious amendment meant to ensure that future parliamentary elections in Armenia always produce a clear winner. It envisages a run-off vote between the two top election contenders if no party or bloc wins a majority of parliament seats in the first round of voting.
The Venice Commission objected to this unusual arrangement shortly after it was made public last month. In a statement, it said that details of the electoral system must be spelled out in Armenia’s electoral code, rather than the constitution.
Nevertheless, Sarkisian’s commission kept that clause in its final text which was sent to the president and promptly approved by the latter on Friday. Davit Harutiunian, a member of the presidential panel, on Monday did not exclude that the clause will be removed or altered.
The Venice Commission members met Sarkisian later on Monday. A statement on the meeting released by the presidential press office said the two sides agreed that they have no “fundamental differences” on the planned constitutional reform. It gave no other details of the talks.
Earlier this year, the Venice Commission said that it supports, in principle, Armenia’s switch to a parliamentary system of government.
While in Yerevan, the Council of Europe experts also held a meeting with the parliamentary leaders of Armenia’s leading opposition parties, including the Armenian National Congress (HAK), the most vocal opponent of the controversial reform. All of those leaders expressed serious concern at the proposed two-round elections, saying that they would only benefit the ruling Republican Party of Armenia (HHK).
The HAK’s Levon Zurabian revealed at that meeting that his party has turned down Sarkisian’s invitation to meet and discuss the matter as part of his fresh consultations with the parliamentary forces. Zurabian also stood by the HAK’s claims that Sarkisian is pushing for the radical change of constitutional order with the sole aim of clinging to power after completing his second and final presidential term in 2018.
Sarkisian and his political allies maintain that the parliamentary system would decentralize power and thereby speed up Armenia’s democratization. Asked by a reporter whether the Venice Commission agrees with this assertion, Grabenwarter said, “The commission cannot guarantee that in two or three years democracy in Armenia will be in a better shape than it is now.”