The National Assembly formally approved on Monday controversial amendments to Armenia’s constitution put forward by President Serzh Sarkisian, paving the way for the conduct of a referendum on them later this year.
Lawmakers voted by 104 to 10, with 3 abstentions, for a constitutional package that would introduce the parliamentary system of government in the country after Sarkisian completes his second and final presidential term in 2018. The vote followed heated debates that pitted the parliament’s pro-government majority against a handful of opposition lawmakers accusing Sarkisian of trying to “perpetuate” his rule.
The amendments drafted by a special presidential commission were backed by deputies from not only the ruling Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) but also the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun) and the Prosperous Armenia Party (BHK), until recently a fierce critic of the constitutional reform. Also voting for them were several deputies nominally representing other opposition parties.
Two of them, Tevan Poghosian and Ruben Hakobian, are members of the parliamentary faction of the opposition Zharangutyun (Heritage) party. The third member of the faction, Zaruhi Postanjian, is a vocal opponent of the proposed amendments.
Postanjian launched a scathing verbal attack on Sarkisian shortly before the vote, leading the deputy parliament speaker Eduard Sharmazanov to cut short her angry speech. “This is not a bazaar,” Sharmazanov said. “This is the National Assembly.”
Orinats Yerkir, another opposition party that was previously allied to Sarkisian, also decided not to back the amendments. Two of its five parliament deputies voted against them, while the three others abstained.
Six other “no” votes came from the parliamentary faction of Levon Ter-Petrosian’s Armenian National Congress (HAK). The HAK and Zharangutyun teamed up last month with more than two dozen other groups in an effort to scuttle the constitutional changes that are expected to be put on a referendum by the beginning of December.
Their No Front coalition has already held two rallies in Gyumri and Yerevan. It plans to stage more such protests across the country in the coming weeks.
“From now on, our main objective will be tocampaign for a ‘no’ vote in the referendum,” the HAK’s parliamentary leader, Levon Zurabian, told about 100 people who gathered outside the parliament compound in Yerevan to protest against the vote. “These constitutional changes are a crime against the state,” he said.
The small crowd scuffled with riot police after hanging a huge “No” banner on a metal fence surrounding the compound. Police detained 21 protesters as a result. All of them were set free later in the day.
Legal experts from the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission largely endorsed the draft amendments last month after most of the changes in the text recommended by them were accepted by the Sarkisian administration. In a September 11 report, they said that the amendments are now “in line with international standards.”