By Ruzanna Khachatrian
The Armenian parliament rubber-stamped on Wednesday a package of constitutional amendments drawn up by President Robert Kocharian, paving the way for a nationwide referendum on them next month.
Kocharian is expected to hold the vote on May 25, concurrently with parliamentary elections. The proposed changes, which would curtail some of his sweeping constitutional powers, were endorsed by 77 members of the 131-strong National Assembly at the end of a two-day debate. Thirteen deputies mainly affiliated with opposition factions voted against. The other opposition lawmakers boycotted the vote.
Kocharian hailed its widely anticipated outcome. “The success of constitutional reform is extremely important for our country in terms of both domestic and external developments,” he said in a special message to parliament speaker Armen Khachatrian made public by his press office.
Khachatrian and other parliamentary leaders praised Kocharian’s draft amendments during Wednesday’s debate, saying that those will significantly improve the existing 1995 constitution widely criticized for giving the president many powers.
The opposition minority, however, dismissed as insignificant the proposed curbs on presidential authority and claimed that Kocharian, whose recent reelection was marred by allegations of vote rigging, lacks the legitimacy to initiate constitutional reform. It also pointed to new powers given to the head of state by the draft amendments.
“Adoption of these amendments would only create an illusion of reform and would aggravate the political and socioeconomic situation in Armenia,” said Shavarsh Kocharian, a senior opposition parliamentarian. “If this draft is put on a referendum we will call for a No vote.”
The Armenian president will remain by far the most powerful official in the country even if his changes are approved by the voters. Some of those changes were unexpectedly watered down in the run-up to the parliament debate. In his initial version of the proposed constitutional reform, Kocharian suggested that Armenia’s prime minister be appointed by the parliament after being nominated by the president. However, the constitutional package approved by the parliament would effectively keep unchanged the existing order whereby the premier is appointed and can be dismissed by the president.
The presidential loyalists, on the other hand, accentuate on another Kocharian proposal that would allow him to dissolve the National Assembly only in the event of its “inactivity,” and not at will as is the case now. Kocharian is also pushing for the abolition of a constitutional provision banning dual citizenship -- a change that has long been sought by many Diaspora Armenians.
Several pro-presidential factions of the assembly voted for the draft despite their strong objections to some of its provisions. The Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun), for example, criticized the presidential administration for not fully accepting its proposal to strip parliamentarians of their constitutional immunity from prosecution.
The current constitution stipulates that deputies can not be prosecuted or arrested without the parliament’s consent. Kocharian agreed to scrap this immunity only for purely criminal cases.
“It’s no secret that the constitutional provision on the immunity is often the main reason why many are tempted to become deputies,” said Armen Rustamian, Dashnaktsutyun’s parliamentary leader.
The argument was angrily rejected by Tigran Torosian, the deputy speaker and a leader of the governing Republican Party.
Dashnaktsutyun and several other factions also deplored Kocharian’s refusal to seek a constitutional change that will allow the capital Yerevan to have an elected mayor. The city’s mayor is currently appointed by the president.