President Armen Sarkissian has validated the parliament’s controversial decision hold a referendum on constitutional changes that would dismiss seven of the nine members of Armenia’s Constitutional Court locked in a bitter dispute with Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian.
In a weekend decree, Sarkissian scheduled the referendum for April 5 amid continuing opposition statements challenging the legality of the amendments drafted by Pashinian’s My Step bloc.
Under the proposed amendments, the court’s chairman, Hrayr Tovmasian, and six other members installed by former Armenian governments would be replaced by other judges to be confirmed by the current parliament controlled by My Step. Pashinian again accused them of remaining linked to the “corrupt former regime” as the National Assembly opted for the referendum on February 6.
Tovmasian has been under particularly strong government pressure to resign in recent months. He has refused to quit and said the authorities are keen to gain control over the country’s highest court. Tovmasian is strongly backed by the former Republican Party of Armenia and other hardline critics of the government.
The ruling bloc’s efforts to install new high court judges through the constitutional changes have also been strongly criticized by the more moderate opposition parties represented in the parliament and some legal experts.
Edmon Marukian, the leader of the opposition Bright Armenia Party (LHK), insisted that the far-reaching changes sought by Pashinian are unconstitutional and were passed with serious procedural violations. Marukian said Sarkissian should have therefore sent the draft amendments to the Constitutional Court for examination instead.
Both the LHK and the other parliamentary opposition party, Prosperous Armenia (BHK), say that an Armenian law on referendums also makes the court’s approval of constitutional changes obligatory.
Vladimir Vartanian, a senior pro-government parliamentarian, countered, however, that the seven court justices cannot make an “objective” decision on the matter because at stake is their own future.
In a written “clarification” issued immediately after his decree, Sarkissian’s office argued that the referendum would have been scheduled even if the head of state had refused to sign the parliament’s decision. It cited an article of the Armenian constitution in support of this assertion.
“It has to be noted that by setting nor setting a date for the referendum the president of the republic does not express his attitude and position on the essence of the constitutional amendments adopted by the National Assembly … or the procedures used for making that decision,” said the statement.
Naira Zohrabian, a senior BHK figure, dismissed this explanation on Monday, accusing Sarkissian of seeking to dodge responsibility for the planned ouster of the Constitutional Court judges. She said that the president, who has largely ceremonial powers, effectively sided with Pashinian.
“If you sign [the parliament’s decision] it means that you fully accept the legitimacy of the process,” Zohrabian told RFE/RL’s Armenian service.
The BHK and the LHK may still prevent the holding of the referendum if their parliament deputies appeal to the Constitutional Court and convince it to declare the draft amendments unconstitutional.
Under the constitution, such appeals must be signed by at least 27 members of the 132-seat parliament. The BHK and the LHK control 26 and 17 parliament seats respectively, putting them in a position to request a court judgment.
The LHK has already indicated its readiness to challenge the proposed constitutional changes in the court. BHK representatives have made more ambiguous statements in that regard so far.
“We have not yet discussed [the issue,] so I find it hard to say whether Prosperous Armenia will join in [the appeal,]” said Zohrabian. The BHK leadership should formulate its position “in the coming days,” she said.
Zohrabian dismissed suggestions that the party led by businessman Gagik Tsarukian is wary of antagonizing Pashinian.
The prime minister was quick to hail the presidential decree on the referendum. In a video address aired on Facebook, he also urged Armenians living abroad to travel to their home country and vote for the amendments on April 5. Armenian law bars them from voting outside the country.
To pass, the amendments would have to be backed by the majority of referendum participants making up at least one-quarter of Armenia’s 2.57 million or so eligible voters.