The National Assembly began debating on Tuesday President Serzh Sarkisian’s constitutional reform package envisaging a radical change of Armenia’s government system which opposition parties say would prolong his rule.
The long list of amendments drafted by an ad hoc presidential commission reached the parliament floor nearly one month after being sent to the parliament’s leadership. Earlier this month the Sarkisian administration agreed to revise some of them in an effort to satisfy the Council of Europe and some opposition groups that seem ready to back Armenia’s transformation into a parliamentary republic.
Vartan Poghosian, a member of the commission, told lawmakers that the draft amendments could undergo more changes during the parliament debates. He said the commission is open to constructive proposals that would “further improve” the text.
Two opposition parties represented in the parliament, the Armenian National Congress (HAK) and Zharangutyun (Heritage), remained adamant in categorically rejecting the proposed reform. They insisted that Sarkisian is keen to remain in power in a different capacity after his second and final presidential term expires in 2018.
“He should be sent to prison in a manner defined by law, instead of having a bill prolonging his tenure debated here,” declared Zaruhi Postanjian, an outspoken deputy from Zharangutyun.
The verbal attack provoked angry rebuttals from some of her colleagues affiliated with the ruling Republican Party of Armenia (HHK). They repeatedly interrupted Postanjian’s speech.
The HAK’s parliamentary leader, Levon Zurabian, demanded, meanwhile, that the debate be broadcast live on state television. “You are trying to hatch a plot behind the people’s backs. This once again shows that you are afraid of public opinion and therefore want to do this secretly,” Zurabian charged after speaker Galust Sahakian rejected the demand.
Sahakian announced later in the day that the Public Television of Armenia has agreed to start broadcasting the proceedings on Wednesday.
With the HHK and its allies enjoying a comfortable majority in the assembly, the constitutional bill will almost certainly win parliamentary approval later this month. This will pave the way for a referendum on the proposed changes.
“I think that we will be prepared to hold the referendum in early December, if the National Assembly gives a positive opinion,” said Vahram Baghdasarian, the HHK’s parliamentary leader.
Baghdasarian suggested that the parliament could tentatively endorse the draft amendments already this week. “We think it right to quickly complete the first phase [of the debate] so that we have more time to work on proposals,” he said.
The HAK and Zharangutyun have pledged to spare no effort to try to scuttle the reform. On Saturday, they joined more than two dozen non-governmental organizations in forming an alliance that will campaign against it. The alliance plans to hold rallies across the country in the run-up to the referendum.