Raising more questions about his long-term political plans, President Serzh Sarkisian has pointedly declined to explicitly reaffirm his earlier pledges not to remain in power after 2018 if he succeeds in transforming Armenia into a parliamentary republic.
In a rare interview with the leading Armenian TV channels aired on Thursday, Sarkisian strongly defended his efforts to expedite such a transition through sweeping constitutional changes put on a referendum to be held on Sunday.
He was asked by a reporter what he will do after completing his final presidential term in 2018 in case of a “Yes” vote in the referendum. “I think that we will talk about that after the 2017 parliamentary elections,” he replied. “It’s too early to talk about that now.”
“Why am I saying ‘after 2017?’” Sarkisian said, answering a similar question from another TV journalist. “Because you can seriously speak of becoming prime minister or forming a government only if you have a majority in parliament. But if you don’t have a majority in parliament, whether or not the constitution has been amended, how are you going to become prime minister? There would be no such possibility.”
Sarkisian publicly stated in April 2014 that he “will not aspire to the post of prime minister” if Armenia does switch to the parliamentary system of governance. He thereby sought to disprove opposition claims that the main aim of his constitutional reform is to enable him to cling to power in a different capacity after 2018. The Armenian constitution bars the incumbent president from seeking a third five-year term in office.
Senior representatives of the ruling Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) have since cited Sarkisian’s pledge on numerous occasions. According to some of them, the president told the HHK’s governing body in July 2015 that he will also not strive to become parliament speaker in 2018 in the event of enacting the controversial amendments.
Asked in the interview whether he is now backtracking on those promises, Sarkisian said: “No, no. I won’t say I have never backtracked on my statements. But as a rule, I don’t backtrack on anything in social life or politics. I just don’t want to mix a noble cause with another cause.”
The ambiguous remarks could give more ammunition to opposition groups campaigning against the passage of the amendments. Levon Zurabian, a leader of the Armenian National Congress (HAK), pounced on them when the opposition party and its allies held another rally in Yerevan on Thursday.
“Serzh Sarkisian has refuted his loyalists’ claims that he has no desire to reproduce his regime,” Zurabian said in a speech. “With his statement, he has exposed his entire plan to retain power.”
The HAK and other reform opponents claim that the proposed amendments would “perpetuate” Sarkisian’s rule by making it easier for the ruling HHK to win the next parliamentary elections. They point to a clause that allows for the possibility of a run-off ballot if the first round of voting does not result in a “stable majority” in the National Assembly.
Sarkisian countered that the elections will not go into a second round if the top election contenders cut a power-sharing deal. He said that even in the event of a run-off the election favorite would need to form alliances with other major parties or blocs. This alone would democratize Armenia’s political system, he added.
Sarkisian further argued that Armenia’s existing, supposedly semi-presidential system is fraught with potentially serious conflicts between the president of the republic and a government formed by a parliament dominated by his political opponents. “That is a threat to our security,” he said. “We would address it by raising democracy to a higher level.”