More than 60 lawyers critical of the Armenian government have joined forces to campaign for a “no” vote in the upcoming referendum on a controversial government proposal to oust most members of the country’s Constitutional Court.
The Central Election Commission (CEC) on Tuesday registered them as the sole No side in the unfolding referendum campaign. The official status entitles them to free airtime on state television.
Armenians will vote on April 5 on draft constitutional amendments ending the powers of seven of the nine Constitutional Court judges who have for months been under government pressure to resign.
Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian has repeatedly accused them -- and Constitutional Court Chairman Hrayr Tovmasian in particular -- of maintaining ties to the “corrupt former regime” and impeding judicial reforms. Tovmasian and Pashinian’s political opponents have dismissed these claims, saying that Pashinian is simply seeking to gain control over Armenia’s highest court.
Leading opposition parties have questioned the legality of the proposed amendments, saying that they run counter to other articles of the Armenian constitution. But none of those parties has decided to officially campaign against their enactment.
Edmon Marukian, the leader of the opposition Bright Armenia Party (LHK), argued last week that opposition involvement in the No campaign would make it easier for Pashinian’s political team to portray a “yes” vote as another rejection of former President Serzh Sarkisian. The latter was overthrown in the 2018 “Velvet Revolution” that brought Pashinian to power.
The lawyers who have set up the official No camp too have denounced the amendments as unconstitutional. One of their representatives, Ruben Melikian, insisted on Tuesday that their involvement in the referendum campaign will not help to legitimize the process.
“In terms of our national interests, we will suffer much greater damage and losses if not only the constitutionality but also the fairness of this process is called into question,” Melikian told reporters. “We must enable people, who have something to say, to present their message and allow those people, who want to monitor [the referendum,] to take that opportunity.”
Melikian, who has served as a deputy justice minister in the past, also said that the lawyers are not afraid of being branded agents of the former regime by Pashinian’s team. “We do not support or campaign against anyone,” he said. “This is a fight for the Republic of Armenia.”
While saying that the No campaign will seek to avoid “political” statements, Melikian did not exclude that it will give opposition forces a platform to continue denouncing the government bid to replace the high court judges.“Yes, we may enable various political forces to make use of our free airtime,” he said.
Meanwhile, Pashinian met with senior members of his My Step bloc late on Monday for further discussions on practical modalities of the Yes campaign. One of his top loyalists, Alen Simonian, confirmed after the meeting that the prime minister will personally participate in the campaign.
“The prime minister loves talking to the people and the people love the prime minister,” Simonian told reporters. “We will be entering this campaign with great pleasure.”
Simonian did not give other details of the campaign. He said only that the ruling bloc should be careful not to “tire out” voters with speeches and other activities.