Campaigning officially began in Armenia on Monday for a referendum on constitutional changes sought by Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian and denounced by his political opponents.
The draft amendments to the Armenian constitution call for the dismissal of seven of the nine members of the Constitutional Court accused by Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian of being linked to the country’s “corrupt former regime.”
The Armenian parliament controlled by Pashinian’s My Step bloc decided on February 6 to put them on a referendum after months of tensions with the court and its chairman, Hrayr Tovmasian, in particular. Tovmasian has resisted strong government pressure to resign.
My Step has already set up a campaign headquarters for a Yes vote in the referendum scheduled for April 5. To pass, the amendments drafted by the ruling bloc have to be backed by a majority of referendum participants making up at least one-quarter of Armenia’s 2.57 million or so eligible voters.
The National Assembly initiated the vote amid serious procedural violations alleged by opposition lawmakers. Some of them said the amendments also run counter to other articles of the constitution. Pashinian’s political allies deny this.
One of them, Alen Simonian, insisted at the weekend that the proposed constitutional changes are part of broader government efforts to strengthen judicial independence in Armenia. He said the authorities want to replace Tovmasian even though the latter was always ready to “serve” them.
“We want to have the kind of judicial system that may say No to us on some issues but will be independent,” Simonian told RFE/RL’s Armenian service. “This judicial system has already proved that it’s not independent.”
Critics say that Pashinian’s team is on the contrary seeking to fill the Constitutional Court with their loyalists and predetermine its future rulings.
Gevorg Gorgisian, a senior member of the opposition Bright Armenia Party (LHK), argued that Armenia has far more pressing issues to deal with. “We will be spending a huge amount of money on this process in order to fire one person, ignoring the most important issues,” Gorgisian said, singling out security challenges stemming from the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
LHK leader Edmon Marukian last week described the upcoming referendum as “completely illegal.”
The former ruling Republican Party of Armenia (HHK), which installed Tovmasian as court chairman in 2018, described the referendum as an unconstitutional “farce” aimed at “satisfying Pashinian’s dictatorial ambitions.”
“Pashinian came to power and hundreds of thousands people wanted changes not for Hrayr Tovmasian’s being or not being [in office] … but in order for their lives to get better,” said HHK spokesman Eduard Sharmazanov.
Sharmazanov reaffirmed the HHK’s pledge not to participate in the unfolding referendum campaign. He also said that the party led by former President Serzh Sarkisian will urge supporters to boycott the vote.
The LHK and the other parliamentary opposition force, the Prosperous Armenia Party (BHK), have similarly decided not to officially campaign for a “No” vote. The BHK leadership questioned the legality of the referendum on Friday.