Laurence Broers
Associate Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Programme
With its proposed constitutional changes, the country’s political elite is trying to ensure its survival, not instituting meaningful reform.
Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan arrives in Ufa, Russia for the SCO and BRICS summits on 9 July 2015. Photo by Getty Images.Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan arrives in Ufa, Russia for the SCO and BRICS summits on 9 July 2015. Photo by Getty Images.

On 6 December Armenians will vote in a referendum on whether to introduce a new parliamentary system. Technically defensible on paper, the proposed amendments look set to continue, rather than challenge, Armenia’s political stagnation.

Although the Venice Commission, the Council of Europe body vested with the expertise to comment on constitutional design, has formally supported the changes, Armenia’s constitutional referendum has inspired little confidence from voters. Regime expedience, rather than institutional desirability or popular aspiration, appear to have decided the timing.

As President Serzh Sargsyan approaches the end of his second term, Armenia’s ruling elite faces a succession crisis, raising fears of a repetition of March 2008, when post-election clashes cost 10 lives and a deeply damaging schism between state and society. In 2018 the ruling elite would face the dilemma of either defrauding or fairly confronting an electorate depleted by migration but galvanized by opposition to Armenia’s January 2015 entry into the Eurasian Union, recurring protests throughout Sargsyan’s second term and increasing frustration at the closed oligarchic system embedded under his Republican Party’s rule. A succession crisis has effectively been averted by substituting a direct presidential election contested around recognizable personalities and issues with a constitutional referendum on a new political system, whose details are not only complex, but whose implications are unknown.

Institutional weakness

The combination of the amendments with Armenia’s political context indicate more a ‘progression’ from crude electoral fraud and state violence to a more sophisticated unitary rule by design. The amendments provide for the presidency to become a largely ceremonial post elected by parliamentary college system for one seven-year term only, while a prime minister nominated by parliamentary majority would hold executive power. Parliament, reduced from 131 to 101 seats, would be elected through a proportional representation system, although the amendments include controversial provisions aimed at ensuring the emergence of a ‘sustainable majority’ in run-off elections if no first round majority is reached.

Whether these amendments will result in greater institutionalization of Armenian political parties, or the further entrenchment of the ruling party, is uncertain. However, Armenia’s record of falsified elections and poor institutional accountability gives little ground for confidence that an embedded majority-holding party could be restrained. This could create the basis not for a revived party politics, but a growing fusion of ruling party and state.  

The amendments also appear to weaken constitutional guarantees of social and economic rights, and introduce new qualifications to the state’s positive obligations in the fulfilment of these rights. This owes in some cases to a mechanical convergence with key European human rights documents. In the new constitution, the state would be relieved of the obligation to ensure the realization of several social and economic rights, being obliged only to promote their fulfilment. Several rights, such as adequate work conditions, social security and healthcare, would have a lower constitutional status.

The opaque process of developing the amendments, beginning only in 2013, has done little to assuage public scepticism. Reportedly very few proposals arising from a rather formal public consultation beginning in July 2014 have made it into the final package. With regard to the vote itself, concerns regarding falsifications of the number of eligible voters indicate that this referendum will suffer from the same core malpractices as Armenian elections.

There are two implications of a ‘yes’ vote. First, there would be little surprise if similar proposals would be raised in the de facto jurisdiction in Nagorno-Karabakh. Transforming the unrecognized republic into a parliamentary one, thereby underlining a differentiation in governance with super-presidential Azerbaijan, could offer the secessionist entity significant PR rewards, albeit dubious legitimacy dividends. Second, the already marked divergence between the elite and the Armenian street, marked not only in recurring street protest in 2011, 2013 and 2015, but also in a nascent tradition of civic initiatives, looks set only to grow. Armenia’s new constitution would offer even fewer opportunities for this new generation to participate meaningfully.

Whether this referendum is a Machiavellian plot to secure political survival, a scheme for unitary rule by design or a dilution of the state’s obligations in fulfilment of socio-economic rights (none of which are mutually exclusive), it reiterates a long-standing divorce between popular legitimacy and political change. The demands of Armenian opposition and civil society groups in recent years have been that the existing constitution be observed, not changed. There is instability enough in Armenia’s domestic and regional politics, and little reason why a leap into an unpredictable new system should be popular. If, as seems inevitable, the referendum is voted through, there will be fewer elections and an even narrower interface between electorate and elite in a country which still expresses a desire to move closer to Europe in spite of its coerced membership of Russia’s Eurasian Union. This is a referendum for elite continuity, not meaningful institutional change. 

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