Sargsyan Government has changed the Constitution of Armenia

The Republic of Armenia held a referendum on 6 December last year to apply a new constitution. The President Serzh Sargsyan was determined to change the political system of the country with a new law which among other things will change the government system from a semi-presidential to a new parliamentarian model with second round. There were two main movements against the reform which are trying to rise awareness about the danger that this new law could suppose for the country.

Author: Carles Revenga Bagés

February 2016, Yerevan (Armenia)

The Republic of Armenia held a referendum on 6 December last year to apply a new constitution. The government of this Eurasian country whose President is Serzh Sargsyan was determined to change the political system of the country with a new law which among other things will change the government system from a semi-presidential to a new parliamentarian model with second round, a system that no state holds right now, but also Renzi Government in Italy wants to apply next June. This parliamentarianism will have the feature to reach stable majorities in a second round in the case that is not possible to have it after the elections of the deputies. It will be something completely new, cause there is nothing similar among advanced democracies in the world. This will come into force only after the end of second Sargsyan’s presidential mandate in 2018. But what happens in Armenia? Do the citizens agree with this change? Can the Armenian Government guarantee a free and transparent debate and elections about it in order to be legitimated for the changes? The results of the referendum were clear, more than sixty per cent of the ballots were for yes.

In September 2013 the President Sargsyan announced unexpectedly a change in the direction of the country and left the Eastern Partnership path for the European Union integration and decided to become part of the new European Customs Union  (Also Eurasian Economic Union), a multilateral project which unites several post-soviet republics with the Russian Federation. Right after this decision he pointed out his intention in order to have a new constitution. The Parliament was divided about the question and some parties gave support to the government and some parties were against the change and were doing campaign for NO. Finally Sargsyan was able to shape a coalition of three parties for change. Also the Venice Commission from the Council of Europe contributed to this new constitution with recommendations which were discussed in the Constitutional Commission.

Talking last November with Vahram Mkrtchyan, a deputy from the Republican Party which is the party in power (70 from 131 deputies), he transmits a clear idea, with the new constitution a new Armenia will emerge. Absolutely trusted in his victory, he assured that the new constitution will improve the defence of human rights. Also highlighted that from the first constitution in 1995, this will be the most important qualitative change. The improvement will be considerable, he pointed out the separation of powers of the new text as the main thing, in the new system the president will hand over power in the election of the judiciary that will be gained by the Parliament. But the most significant innovation will be the implementation of a system that will search stable majorities, it will be parliamentarian but at the same time it will have second round in order to obtain them. Armenia cannot afford weak governments in the rule of the Republic, “we have a conflict with Azerbaidjan” he said, “we need stable majorities for a determined government action”.

Some part of the population received with indifference the process, with another example of the disconnection between the ruling elite and the population. Nevertheless there were two main movements against the reform which are trying to rise awareness about the danger that this new law could suppose for the country. This is a moment of economic difficulties for several reasons. For instance among others, the problems that the Russian Federation suffers. We have to bear in mind that this country has the majority of the Armenian workforce abroad and their income is very important for the economy of the country, the remittances from them, according to the World Bank, are 20% of the GDP of Armenia. Of course, with the current situation in Russia, affected by international sanctions and the change of the oil prices, this income drop substantially. And we have to point out as well that more than a third of the population lives under the poverty line and almost one quarter is unemployed.

The country had a kind of young uprising last summer when the difficulties of the families were hit by the announcement of the intention of the electrical company to increase the electricity bill around 17%. A sporadic reaction, mostly from a young generation that see no clear future, occupied the main street of Yerevan, next to the Parliament. In the beginning of the uprising the Government reaction was aggressive and put 200 people in jail the first day, but the youngsters went back to the place asking for change. What gathered the protestors was the electricity bill, but also the corruption of the electrical company owned by Russians, concretely their bad management, when at the same time they were earning lots of money. Fearing that could be another “maidan” like in Kiev, even Russians were afraid about it, President tackled the issue and negotiated with some leaders from the demonstrators. Finally agreed with them to find a solution, to audit the company by an independent entity, not to increase the bill (in any case the Government will pay the difference) and most important, the company will go to an Armenian-Russian billionaire, Samuel Karapetyan, who would take care of it, for the sake of the country. This deactivate the protest. Finally it seems that new owner decided to increase the price anyway but it is still not clear how it will be compensated.

Electoral observation missions from OSCE have largely informed about irregularities within electoral process in Armenia. Also the country has lived many demonstrations for this reason right after elections, for instance Sargsyan got the his Presidency in 2008 after huge demonstration for new elections in the street. The upheaval came because demonstrators were not satisfied with the electoral process, and doubts about the result pushed the opposition to take the streets. The situation was so tense that riots caused ten casualties and the government declared martial law for a month in the capital of the country, Yerevan. After this, an agreement of several parties with the party in power cooled down the people and finally Sargsyan was declared President and the protest ended. Riots happened also after elections in 2013, with no result. Also the same year a movement took the streets to stop the rise of the bus price, in that case the protest succeed and the change was not applied. The change was from 100 Drams to 150 Drams, so 50 Drams which is 10 cents of euro.

Before the polls I met Armen Grigoryan, who is a member of Transparency International in Armenia,  and as well a professor in the Armenian-Russian University in Yerevan of Political Science. He showed their will to cover all of the polling stations with observers, they wanted put as much observers as they could. Grigoryan explained that there are more than plausible reasons to think that electoral process are manipulated. In latest elections in those polling stations where TI had observers, the results were balanced. On the contrary, in polling stations were there was no observation, the results of the Republican Party were high indeed. “TI will make a great effort this time for observation in this referendum to control the polls and as much activity as possible”.

Grigoryan is at the same time one of the leaders of one of the two biggest platforms against the constitutional reform. This movement is called “no pasaran”, directly written in Spanish, and its members come from political parties and also from civil society organisations. “No pasaran” is supported by intellectuals, academics, lawyers and political activists. They maintain that the referendum and the new constitution is just an excuse for a U-turn into a more authoritarian government. “The president wants to perpetuate himself in office and with the current system he can’t do it, he cannot go for a third mandate” he said. Explained that the second round possibility is a mechanism to give less relative weight  to the other parties in the parliament because the party which wins the second round would obtain much more deputies in order to assure a stable majority, creating an asymmetry among the political formations. Also the constitutional reform will generate a less quality democracy in the country, cause they will change from five elections to two.

Last December Armenia voted for a new system, new constitution, for a new Armenia, as Mkartchyan said. Waiting for the final report of the OSCE Mission in Armenia, the European Platform for Democratic Elections (EPDE) summarised that a high number of irregularities had been reported. This organisation stated that the Government manipulated deliberately the Councils which have to control the process, had been chosen by police officers and even by the party in power, in some cases, in spite of an impartial body. Another irregularity reported was the problem with the lists, which are not possible still to be verified by independent organisations. This allows an easy fraud. Some observers complained that they couldn’t work, receiving threats and physical intimidations and also continuous obstruction in their activity, also reports on ballot box stuffing.

Lane Wetteland from the Norwegian Helsinki Committee remarked after the polls that the whole process is still far from the international standards to consider the result the free will of the citizens from Armenia. There is still a long way for transparency, but electoral observation is absolutely necessary to achieve that goal, and to have clean process with democratic legitimation. Some initiatives are in the good direction, she said. After voting results were published, you could notice a big difference between large cities and small municipalities. In the first case, where organisations were capable to have observers at polling stations, the turnout was low and the majority of ballots were against the reform. In the small municipalities, the majority of ballots were in favour of  the reform and a higher turnout was registered. In many villages 100 per cent of the votes were for the reform which is obviously more than strange. This has a clear relation with the problem reported from the EPDE, the problem with the lists, impossible to be verified by an independent body.

After the referendum, this time, the protests were small and short. A few people complaint that some bus lines from the suburbs didn’t work in order to put difficulties to the demonstrators. People in the streets of Yerevan had clear that the government would get away with it, as it happened. Somehow population are more concerned about daily life, many demonstrations after elections in this country in the latest years, a whole generation burned out.  The population has lost the hope to change how the system works, making clear that there is a division between the population and the ruling elite, which has under control many spheres of the Armenian “reality”. Now Sargsyan had won again, will see if he does what he said, first not to run for a third mandate, as he promised. Second, to be able to bring prosperity and a better democracy for the citizens of the Republic although the difficulties of the moment. The ruling elite wanted a new tool to accomplish this aim, they got it already, opposition and national and international organisations will keep an eye on the deployment of the changes in the years ahead to see if the critics were right or not.