The constitutional referendum on Armenia’s switch to the parliamentary system of government sought by President Serzh Sarkisian will take place on December 6, it was announced on Thursday.
Sarkisian formally called the referendum and set a date for it three days after the Armenian parliament dominated by his loyalists approved a package of sweeping constitutional amendments drafted by a presidential commission.
To pass, the amendments will have to be approved by the majority of referendum participants making up at least one-quarter of Armenia’s 2.5 million or so eligible voters. Sarkisian and his political allies will thus need to garner at least 620,000 votes.
The Armenian president got, according to official results, more than 860,000 votes when he secured his reelection in a February 2013 ballot denounced as fraudulent by his main challenger, Raffi Hovannisian, and other opposition forces.
Hovannisian’s Zharangutyun (Heritage) party, former President Levon Ter-Petrosian’s Armenian National Congress (HAK) as well as two dozen smaller anti-government groups last month joined forces in an effort to scuttle the constitutional reform. They pledged to turn the upcoming referendum into a popular vote of no confidence in Sarkisian and the ruling Republican Party of Armenia (HHK).
The reform opponents maintain that the proposed amendments to the Armenian constitution are aimed at enabling Sarkisian to indefinitely stay in power in a different capacity after the end of his second and final presidential term in 2018.
Sarkisian has denied this, saying that he will not become prime minister or parliament speaker in case of Armenia’s transformation into a parliamentary republic. The president, his HHK and other political allies say that such a radical change would on the contrary decentralize power and facilitate the country’s democratization.
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.”
Incidentally, the head of the Venice Commission, Gianni Buquicchio, visited Yerevan and met with Sarkisian on Thursday. According to a statement by the Armenian presidential press office, Buquicchio expressed hope that the constitutional referendum will be “free, fair and transparent.”