The opposition minority in the Armenian parliament on Monday rejected as unconstitutional a government-backed bill that will allow the authorities 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 have 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. The government subsequently 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 allow the parliament cancel it altogether.
The National Assembly controlled by My Step passed the bill in the first reading on Monday amid strong objections from senior representatives of the two parliamentary opposition parties. They insisted that the Armenian constitution does not allow the parliament to call off a vote already scheduled by it.
“We believe that the bill is unconstitutional and won’t take part in the vote,” Bright Armenia Party (LHK) leader Edmon Marukian said at the end of a parliament debate.
“By the same logic, the National Assembly can now vote to abolish the month of June or the New Year,” said Naira Zohrabian of the Prosperous Armenia Party.
It remained unclear, however, whether the two opposition parties will ask the Constitutional Court to pass judgment on the bill’s conformity with the constitution. They hold enough parliament seats to lodge such an appeal.
Leaders of the parliament majority insisted, meanwhile, that the measure is not at odds with the constitution.
“If we follow your logic, the first basic laws adopted by us must become a Bible that cannot be amended,” said Hovakimian. “The National Assembly does have a right to change decisions made by it and this bill allows us to do just that.”
My Step’s parliamentary leader, Lilit Makunts, argued, for her part, that the continuing pandemic makes it impossible for the authorities to hold the referendum. She said they will opt for a different way of changing the Constitutional Court’s composition.
Other majority leaders indicated last month that the Pashinian administration no longer insists on replacing all seven judges and is ready to accept a less radical solution. They said this is why the government asked the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe to help end its standoff with the high court.
The authorities hope that the commission will respond to the request before the end of this month.