Two Armenian opposition parties and one civic group jointly campaigning against controversial constitutional amendments ahead of a December referendum claim they are in unequal conditions with the pro-reform forces at the start of the campaign.
Former president Levon Ter-Petrosian’s Armenian National Congress (HAK), Stepan Demirchian’s People’s Party of Armenia and the civic group called “You Won’t Pass It” issued a joint statement on Friday, arguing that “an election rigging machine” and “capitals stolen from the people” will be used by the authorities and that “all television channels will also be supporting the reproduction of [President] Serzh Sarkisian’s government.”
The three forces that have formed one of several opposition “fronts” opposing the controversial changes believe that Sarkisian seeks to ensure his continued stay in power beyond 2018 when the current Constitution will bar him from running for the third consecutive presidential term.
Under the proposed changes Armenia will be turned into a parliamentary republic with a strong prime minister and a largely ceremonial president. But in his public remarks in 2014 President Sarkisian pledged not to seek a top government post if the reform was carried out.
Opposition groups in Armenia claim the authorities are getting ready for another “vote rigging” to ensure the passage of the controversial changes.
But the HAK’s lawmaker Aram Manukian believes that even these efforts may not eventually help the ruling Republican Party. “In administrative and financial terms, yes, but it does not matter, we also have other resources that they don’t, it’s popular support. They are absolutely deprived of this support, only a part of the administrative apparatus will vote for them,” he said.
Members of the “No” campaign on Friday began provincial tours during which they say they are going to visit urban and rural communities also in preparation for rallies in capital Yerevan.
“We’ll try to cover the whole of Armenia, as much as we can in terms of our time, human and financial resources. Our only chance is for the people to vote knowing that this is a vote against Serzh Sarkisian. Our ‘No’ is against both the [new] Constitution and Serzh Sarkisian,” Manukian stressed.
Another opposition front that has announced its intention to derail the referendum with street protests even before it is held has already claimed pressure from the authorities after declaring a new push for regime change in Armenia.
Members of the New Armenia group that comprises the opposition Heritage party and the extra-parliamentary radical opposition Founding Parliament group took the statement of Vahram Baghdasarian, the head of the Republican Party’s parliamentary faction, that “law-enforcement authorities will not just watch and do nothing” as a threat against them. They have sent letters to a number of international organizations and foreign embassies in Armenia.
“While Serzh Sarkisian in creating an illusion in Europe that Armenia is a democratic country, at the start of the referendum campaign his party and administration have already started making threats to members of the New Armenia front,” said activist Syuzan Simonian.
Remarkably, United States Ambassador to Armenia Richard Mills today called on the Armenian authorities to conduct an open and transparent debate over the constitutional reform enabling all parties to have equal opportunities. The diplomat stressed that it will allow Armenia to have a legitimate constitution no matter what the outcome of the referendum is.
Meanwhile, Armenian Parliament Speaker Galust Sahakian and Constitutional Court Chairman Gagik Harutiunian on Friday attended a meeting of the Venice Commission.
Addressing the Council of Europe’s advisory body, Sahakian, in particular, gave assurances that the Armenian authorities will do everything for the December 6 referendum to be held at an appropriate level.
The top Armenian legislator reportedly presented what he described as the advantages of the proposed amendments that he stressed will be “another step in the ongoing process of promoting human rights and freedoms, establishing democracy and building a rule-of-law state.”
Legal experts from the 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.”