By Liz Fuller in Prague
Armenia's estimated 2.4 million registered voters will be called upon to vote on 27 November in a referendum on a package of draft constitutional amendments. Passage will require that a minimum of one-third of those voters approve the amendments -- which the United States, European Union, and Council of Europe have described as "vital" for the ongoing reform process.
But most opposition parties reject the amendments, arguing that the Armenian authorities themselves lack legitimacy, and therefore do not have the right to reform the country's basic law. The opposition is therefore urging voters to boycott the referendum, the outcome of which they accuse the leadership of planning to falsify.
The process of drafting the amendments and their passage by parliament has been protracted and acrimonious. It has, moreover, been overshadowed by the failure of a previous constitutional referendum two years ago. On that occasion, just over 52 percent of registered voters participated, with "yes" votes only narrowly exceeding "no" votes.
In September 2004, three separate draft packages of proposed amendments were submitted to the Armenian parliament, prepared respectively by the ruling three-party coalition, the pro-government United Labor Party, and veteran oppositionist Arshak Sadoyan, leader of the National Democratic Party. Those three drafts were then submitted for evaluation to the Council of Europe's Venice Commission, which assessed the first two as an improvement on the present constitution; but the Venice Commission rejected Sadoyan's as failing to address certain crucial issues related to human rights and the judiciary, according to Noyan Tapan. The commission further suggested a number of changes to the government draft, specifically with regard to expanding the powers of the legislature, limiting the president's authority to appoint and dismiss judges, and introducing elections for the post of Yerevan mayor.
In early May, the Armenian parliament approved a slightly revised version of the draft prepared by the ruling coalition. Sadoyan promptly denounced that draft as "evil" and warned that it could lead to an "Asian-style dictatorship," according to Noyan Tapan on 13 May. He called on all political forces to reject that draft. In seemingly partial agreement, the Council of Europe's Venice Commission expressed in late May its "deep dissatisfaction" at the authorities' failure to take into account its previous recommendations. That negative assessment prompted the two opposition parliamentary factions -- the Artarutiun bloc and the National Accord Party (AMK) -- to advise their members to reject the proposed changes, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on 31 May. In late June, Armenia submitted to the Venice Commission an amended draft that addressed the commission's three main concerns. The commission approved the revised draft on 21 July, but opposition parties nonetheless continued to demand further changes and boycotted the subsequent parliament debates in August and September at which the final draft was approved.
Yet despite their shared disapproval of the draft amendments and apprehension that the government would resort to subterfuge to ensure their approval by the population at large, the opposition initially failed to agree on a course of action. Even during the emergency debate in late August in which the draft was approved in its first and second readings, Artarutiun and the AMK announced that they rejected the draft and would urge voters to vote against them, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Days later, they announced plans to stage rallies across the country in an attempt to persuade voters to reject the proposed changes. But on 16 November, just 11 days before the referendum, most opposition parties shifted tactics and decided to urge voters to boycott.
Opposition leaders, first and foremost former Prime Minister and Hanrapetutiun party Chairman Aram Sargsian, repeatedly accused the authorities of seeking to falsify the outcome of the plebiscite and warned that attempts to do so would trigger a spontaneous uprising and the collapse of the regime. "We will be living in a new Armenia on 28 November," Sargsian declared on 11 November in the town of Yeghard.
The Armenian authorities too launched an intensive public-relations campaign to drum up support for the proposed constitutional amendments, for which 21 political parties plus the People's Deputy parliamentary faction expressed their backing in an 18 October statement, Noyan Tapan reported.
Some aspects of that campaign, such as orders issued to teachers in Yerevan by the city mayor to persuade students and their parents of the merits of the planned changes, have fueled opposition suspicions that the authorities plan to rig the outcome of the vote. And while television stations are not charging for government-sponsored advertising promoting the constitutional changes, the opposition has encountered problems in securing paid airtime to argue its case against, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on 31 October.
While Armenian officials are unanimous in insisting that the voting will be free and fair, and that they will not resort to rigging to obtain the required minimum number of votes in favor of the proposed changes, differences of opinion have emerged within the ruling coalition over the likely impact of failure. Prime Minister Andranik Markarian said on 6 October that speculation that the failure of the referendum would necessitate the government's resignation is misplaced, Noyan Tapan reported. Galust Sahakian, who heads the parliamentary faction of Markarian's Republican Party of Armenia (HHK), suggested that it would be better for the draft not to pass than for it to be pushed through by means of violations. But Armen Rustamian of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun argued on 22 September that failure to pass the amendments would mean "failure for Armenia" insofar as it would, he suggested, be construed by the European Union and the Council of Europe as a rejection of Europe and of European values, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported.
In a 28 October address to students at Yerevan State University that was subsequently posted in English translation on the Foreign Ministry's website (http://www.armeniaforeignministry.am), Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian sought to demolish the opposition's arguments against the proposed changes and the "myths" that he said have grown up around some of them. Oskanian dismissed as "excuses with no underpinnings" the argument that the present Armenian leadership does not have the right to reform the constitution because it was not legitimately elected and has repeatedly violated it. He further dismissed as "myths" claims that the revised constitution would make it possible for the parliament to endorse changes in the country's borders, without the issue being put to a nationwide referendum; would give non-citizens the chance to buy unlimited quantities of land in Armenia; would make it possible, by removing the existing ban on dual citizenship, for Diaspora Armenians to play the decisive role in running the country; and would grant the incumbent president immunity from prosecution and lift the existing ban on a president serving more than two consecutive terms. (President Robert Kocharian's second term in office expires in early 2008.) Senior HHK lawmaker Samvel Nikoyan reminded voters in Armenia's northwestern Shirak district on 17 November while seeking to persuade the population to endorse the proposed constitutional changes that Kocharian has repeatedly vowed that he will not seek a third term. "All the political forces that have backed [the president] until now are of the opinion that the constitution must be respected and that no president should have the right to be reelected for a third term," Nikoyan said.
Kocharian's national security adviser, Garnik Isagulian, affirmed on 16 November, "I can say for certain that we will get a 'yes' vote. We will get more votes than are required by law," RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. HHK faction head Sahakian predicted on 18 November that the ratio of "yes" to "no" votes will be 80:20, Noyan Tapan reported. AMK Chairman Artashes Geghamian proclaimed with similar confidence on 16 November that "the constitutional changes are doomed to be rejected by our people. That is obvious to all of us."
According to an opinion poll conducted by the Vox Populi center in Yerevan in early November and summarized on 18 November by Noyan Tapan, 54 percent of respondents intend to participate in the referendum, of whom 46.6 percent said they will vote "yes." Whether that comparatively low level of support is due to deep-rooted discontent with the present leadership remains unclear.
Equally unclear is what percentage of voters have a clear understanding of the changes they are being asked to approve, especially as voters are required to say "yes" or "no" to the entire package rather than to vote on individual changes or, as was the case in the 2002 Azerbaijani constitutional referendum, on groups of proposed amendments. That referendum entailed approving or rejecting eight distinct packages of changes relating to such issues as the conduct of parliamentary and presidential elections, the conduct of referendums, the restructuring of the government, and judicial reform, according to zerkalo.az on 30 August 2002.