In a major boost to President Serzh Sarkisian, legal experts from the Council of Europe have essentially endorsed the latest version of his administration’s draft constitutional amendments, saying they are now “in line with international standards.”
In a weekend report, the Venice Commission argued that the constitutional reform package drafted by an Armenian presidential body has undergone important changes recommended by its representatives.
The package calls for Armenia’s transformation into a parliamentary republic with a largely ceremonial head of state and a much more powerful prime minister.
The Venice Commission voiced a number of objections to the draft amendments after they were first made public this summer. It singled out a clause that envisaged a mandatory run-off vote between the two top election contenders in cases where no party or bloc wins a majority of parliament seats in the first round of voting. Armenian opposition groups believe that this unusual arrangement was designed to make it easier for Sarkisian’s Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) to retain its control over the National Assembly.
The Sarkisian administration agreed to revise this and several other amendments during an August 24-25 visit to Yerevan by three Venice Commission officials. The revised version of the clause stipulates that a run-off vote “may” take place “if no stable parliamentary majority is formed as a result of the election or through building of a political coalition.”
“Article 89 does not provide any more that a second round of elections shall be held, but only that is may be held,” the Venice Commission stressed in the report posted on its website. “This solution is in line with the recommendation of the [commission’s earlier] Preliminary Opinion and deserves to be welcomed,” it said.
“The Electoral Code will have to provide for the electoral system in detail; if it provides for a second round, the Code will have to deal in particular with the definition of “stable parliamentary majority” as the condition not to call for a second round of elections,” added the report.
Although the commission made a number of further recommendations to the Armenian authorities, it made clear that the existing draft will represent a “further important step forward in the transition of Armenia towards democracy” if it is backed by voters in a referendum due expected this year.
Democratization is also the main official rationale for the constitutional reform advanced by Sarkisian. His political opponents insist, however, that the Armenian president is simply keen to retain control over the government after completing his second and final term in 2018.
Levon Zurabian, a leader of the opposition Armenian National Congress (HAK), stood by the opposition claims as he dismissed the Venice Commission’s conclusions on Saturday. Zurabian downplayed the changes made in the text, saying that “the regime’s reproduction” remains its key aim. “We will keep fighting against the realization of this program with the same vigor,” he said.