President Serzh Sarkisian on Monday praised electoral bodies controlled by his administration for “the proper conduct” of Armenia’s disputed constitutional referendum and said he has received a popular mandate to turn the country into a parliamentary republic.
Sarkisian addressed a large group of senior government officials and his political allies several hours after the Central Election Commission (CEC) declared a popular “Yes” vote for his constitutional changes that will take effect after he completes his final presidential term in 2018.
“We can now conclude that the parliamentary system of government for our state is already a reality,” he said. “It means the existence of strong government and strong opposition, an increased role for political parties and new opportunities for their development.”
“I want to thank all individuals who have participated in the proper organization and conduct of the referendum process,” he added amid continuing street protests in Yerevan staged by opposition groups accusing the Sarkisian administration of rigging Sunday’s referendum.
Sarkisian made no direct mention of the opposition allegations. He said only that “competent bodies” should properly investigate reported irregularities.
The constitutional changes mean that Armenia’s next president will have largely ceremonial functions. The bulk of sweeping powers currently enjoyed by Sarkisian will be transferred to the prime minister and their cabinet formed by the parliamentary majority. The president will be elected by the parliament, rather than popular vote, for a seven-year term.
Sarkisian, his Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) and some nominally opposition parties supporting the constitutional reform say that the parliamentary system would democratize the country’s political system and strengthen the rule of law. But other, more hardline opposition forces insist that it is only designed to enable him to extend his rule beyond 2018.
In an effort to disprove the opposition claims, Sarkisian said last year that he will not run for any government office if the proposed amendments are enacted by 2018. However, he pointedly declined to reaffirm that pledge on the eve of the referendum.
The fraud allegations were effectively echoed on Monday by three members of the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) who monitored the vote. In a joint statement, Swiss lawmakers Andreas Gross and Doris Fiala and their British colleague Alan Meale also criticized the broader constitutional reform process, saying that it has not been “inclusive enough.” They said that “too many citizens” of Armenia regard it as a “means for the current president to remain in power” after 2018.