The pro-government majority in the Armenian parliament has moved to enact legislation that will allow it to formally cancel a planned referendum on ousting most members of the country’s Constitutional Court.
Armenians were scheduled to vote on April 5 on government-drafted constitutional amendments ending the powers of seven of the nine Constitutional Court judges who had for months been under strong government pressure to resign.
The referendum was postponed on March 16 when the Armenian government declared a state of emergency to deal with the coronavirus outbreak in the country. Earlier this month the government extended it by another month, until June 14. Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian confirmed on May 17 that due to the pandemic the vote will not be held anytime soon.
Under Armenian law, no elections or referendums can take place during the state of emergency. But the authorities must hold a planned vote 50 to 65 days after the end of emergency rule.
A bill drafted by Vahagn Hovakimian, a senior lawmaker from Pashinian’s My Step bloc, would not only abolish this requirement but also allow the parliament cancel a referendum altogether.
As the National Assembly began debating the bill on Wednesday Hovakimian and other pro-government deputies insisted that it does not mean Armenia’s political leadership will necessarily call off the controversial referendum. They said their initiative is only aimed at eliminating ambiguities in the existing legislation regulating the conduct of referendums.
Opposition deputies were unconvinced. One of them, Naira Zohrabian, questioned the bill’s conformity with the Armenian constitution. She also claimed that the authorities are afraid of not garnering a sufficient number of votes in the referendum and are trying to get rid of the Constitutional Court judges through the parliament controlled by them.
Parliament majority leaders indicated last week that the Pashinian administration no longer insists on replacing all seven judges and is ready to settle for a less radical change in the court’s composition. They said this is why the government asked the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe this month to help end its standoff with the high court.