An ad hoc commission on constitutional reform set up by President Serzh Sarkisian has officially advocated Armenia’s transformation into a parliamentary republic with a powerful prime minister and largely ceremonial head of state.
The commission made a case for radically changing the country’s “overcentralized” government system in the final version of its reform “concept” that was submitted to Sarkisian and made public on Wednesday. It also publicized a positive assessment of the 49-page document made by legal experts from the Council of Europe.
Sarkisian is now expected to hold consultations with leading political parties before deciding whether the commission should start drafting concrete amendments to the Armenian constitution along the lines of its recommendations.
Only one major opposition party, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun), has so far expressed readiness, in principle, to back his plans for constitutional reform.
Three other parliamentary parties challenging Sarkisian have rejected those plans out of hand, saying that they are aimed enabling him to stay in power, as prime minister or parliament speaker, after the end of his second and final presidential term in 2018.
The issue is high on the agenda of the ongoing campaign of anti-government demonstrations launched by the Prosperous Armenia, Armenian National Congress and Zharangutyun parties last month. Rallying more than 10,000 supporters in Yerevan last Friday, their leaders said that Sarkisian should negotiate “a handover of power” with them, instead of attempting to amend the constitution. The opposition trio threatened to step up its push for “regime change” if he refuses to do that.
Sarkisian and his ruling Republican Party of Armenia (HAK) have denied any ulterior motives behind the planned reform, saying that it is only meant to improve governance in the country. The president also stated in June that he will not seek to become prime minister if Armenia becomes a parliamentary republic.
The presidential commission headed by Gagik Harutiunian, the chairman of the Constitutional Court, asserted in its reform concept that the widely recognized flaws of the current constitution enacted in 1995 cannot be addressed without a switch to the parliamentary form of governance. That would provide for a “clearer functional separation of powers,” it said.
The concept says that the executive branch must be headed only by the prime minister and members of his or her cabinet representing the parliamentary majority. It says that the president of the republic should essentially act like an “impartial arbiter” monitoring the government’s and parliament’s compliance with the constitution.
“The presidential powers will be drastically curtailed if there is a transition to the parliamentary system,” Vartan Poghosian, a member of the commission, told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am). “The lion’s share of those powers would be given to the government and the prime minister.”
“Both de facto and de jure the prime minister would lead the government and play the role of the political first violinist,” said Poghosian.
The commission also believes that the president should be elected by the National Assembly or a special electoral college, rather than a majority of voters, as has been the case since 1991. In addition, its reform framework would bar the head of state from seeking a second term.
The presidential panel also recommended other constitution changes which it said would make Armenian courts more independent and improve the system of local governments.
The so-called Venice Commission, a Council of Europe body monitoring legal reforms in member states, has found most of its arguments convincing. “The draft concept paper is a good and valuable basis for the preparation of a concrete package of proposals for the reform of the Constitution of the Republic of Armenia,” it said in a written analysis sent to Yerevan. The changes recommended to Sarkisian would “strengthen democratic principles and establish the necessary conditions for ensuring the rule of law and respect for human rights,” it said.
The Venice Commission at the same time stopped short of explicitly endorsing the country’s transformation into a parliamentary republic, saying that it requires “broad consensus within society.”
The Armenian constitution can be amended only through a referendum. Some officials in Yerevan have said that it will take place by the beginning of 2016 if Sarkisian presses ahead with the reform.