The opposition Bright Armenia Party (LHK) on Tuesday again denounced constitutional changes drafted by Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian’s political team as illegal but said it will not actively urge voters to reject them in an upcoming referendum.
The draft amendments call for the dismissal of seven of the nine members of Armenia’s Constitutional Court. The judges -- and the court’s chairman, Hrayr Tovmasian, in particular -- have been under strong government pressure to resign in recent months, with Pashinian accusing them of being linked to the “corrupt former regime.”
Deputies representing the LHK voted against the proposed amendments when Pashinian’s My Step bloc pushed them through the Armenian parliament last week. The opposition party’s leader, Edmon Marukian, said they run counter to the Armenian constitution and were passed with serious procedural violations. Pro-government lawmakers denied that.
Marukian insisted on Tuesday that the referendum scheduled for April 5 is “completely illegal.” He said at the same time that the LHK leadership has decided not to officially campaign for a “No” vote.
“There must not be a ‘No’ camp in the unconstitutional referendum and unconstitutional process; there must only be a ‘Yes’ camp,” Marukian explained at a news conference.
“Why? Because the authorities badly need some people to campaign for a ‘No’ vote so that they can tell those people that they are defending Serzh Sarkisian and deliver the kind of speeches which everyone is tired of,” he said.
“Let them only campaign for a ‘Yes’ vote, and the people will decide whether or not to vote ‘Yes.’ But setting up a ‘No’ vote front would mean giving the authorities a chance to keep generating hatred,” he added.
A senior My Step figure, Alen Simonian dismissed this stance as “absurd.” “If they call [the process] unconstitutional but are not going to do anything about that, it means … they just don’t know what they are doing,” he said.
Pashinian urged supporters to vote for the amendments immediately after President Armen Sarkissian set the referendum date on Sunday. The prime minister said they would thereby “say yes to the revolution” and “slam the door in corrupt officials’ face.”
Pashinian has repeatedly accused Tovmasian and the six other Constitutional Court judges appointed under the former governments of obstructing his efforts to make the Armenian judiciary “truly independent.”
Critics claim that he is on the contrary keen to gain control over the country’s highest court. They also point to the authorities’ failure to ask the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission to examine the draft amendments before putting them on a referendum.
The LHK and the other parliamentary opposition party, Prosperous Armenia (BHK), may still prevent the holding of the referendum if their parliament deputies appeal to the Constitutional Court and convince it to declare the amendments unconstitutional.
Under the Armenian 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.
Marukian reaffirmed his party’s readiness to challenge the referendum in the court. BHK leader Gagik Tsarukian indicated on Tuesday, however, that BHK lawmakers will not back such a move. Some of those lawmakers have also questioned the legality of the government drive to replace the high court judges.