Ignoring opposition objections, Armenia’s parliament decided on Thursday to hold a referendum on constitutional changes that would dismiss seven of the nine members of the Constitutional Court locked in a bitter dispute with Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian’s government.
They would be replaced by other judges to be confirmed by the current 132-member National Assembly in which Pashinian’s My Step bloc holds 88 seats.
The decision was unanimously backed by virtually all My Step deputies. Lawmakers representing the opposition Bright Armenia Party (LHK) voted against it while their colleagues from the other parliamentary opposition party, Prosperous Armenia (BHK), did not vote at all.
My Step’s Vahagn Hovakimian, who presented the draft amendments during the parliament debate, said that the Constitutional Court is Armenia’s least trusted state institution.
Addressing the National Assembly shortly before the vote, Pashinian also strongly defended the amendments rejected as unconstitutional by opposition deputies. He again accused Constitutional Court Chairman Hrayr Tovmasian and six other judges installed by former Armenian governments from 1995-2018 of being linked to the “corrupt former regime.”
“The Constitutional Court represents the corrupt regime of [former President] Serzh Sarkisian, rather than the people, and it must go,” he declared.
Pashinian also claimed that Armenia’s highest court “limits the people’s power” and poses a “terrible and direct threat to democracy.” Its legal powers must therefore be superseded by “sovereign rights of the people,” he said.
Pashinian went on to warn his political opponents against attempting to thwart the constitutional changes through legal or other mechanisms, saying that they would be declared “anti-state” elements in that case.
The warning prompted an angry response from LHK leader Edmon Marukian, who accused Pashinian of “blackmail.”
“Is it you who decides who are anti-state forces and who are patriots? Is this the ‘democracy’ you dream about?” Marukian asked him on the parliament floor.
Marukian reaffirmed his party’s view that the draft amendments run counter to other articles of the Armenian constitution. He also noted that the current Constitutional Court consists of judges appointed under different governments. This is an important safeguard for the court’s independence, he said.
Another senior LHK figure, Taron, Sahakian, insisted that under Armenian law the amendments cannot be put on a referendum without being examined and endorsed by the Constitutional Court.
Parliament majority leaders gave no indications that they will submit the amendments to the court for approval before setting a referendum date. They cited articles of the constitution which make no reference to such a validation.
Pashinian and his allies hinted that the decision to hold the referendum should be endorsed instead by President Armen Sarkissian. The prime minister said Sarkisian has already agreed in principle to the holding of the vote.
The president has made no public statements on the matter so far.
The Constitutional Court judges and Tovmasian in particular have for months been under growing government pressure to resign. The parliament also passed in December a government bill offering them financial incentives to retire before the end of their mandate. None of them has accepted the early retirement scheme so far.
Later in December, prosecutors brought criminal charges against Tovmasian. The Constitutional Court chairman rejected the accusations as politically motivated and again ruled out his resignation. He has said that the authorities want to get rid of him in order to gain control over the court.
Tovmasian claimed to be unfazed by the latest developments when he briefly spoke to RFE/RL’s Armenian service on Thursday evening. He said that he did not follow the parliament debate.
“I don’t care what’s happening in the National Assembly,” he said.
Earlier in the day, Tovmasian hosted a reception for fellow judges and Constitutional Court staffers to mark the 24 anniversary of the court’s establishment. “Rest assured that the members of the court will never make a decision of which they will be ashamed,” he said in a speech.