Armenia’s parliament has voted for its next president for the first time in the course of the country’s constitutional change. Armen Sarkissian, former ambassador to the United Kingdom, was elected as outgoing president Serzh Sarkisian’s (not related) successor on 2 March. Handpicked by Sarkisian and his ruling Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) and strongly opposed by the opposition Yelk alliance and several organizations, he remains controversial.
Turbulent elections Since the announcement of his candidacy, Sarkissian divided politicians and citizens. There have been heavy protests by opponents of him and HHK. Furthermore, the leader of the opposition Yelk alliance, the parliament’s fourth faction, Nikol Pashinian, questioned the candidate’s eligibility and the legitimacy of the election itself.
To become president, he needed three quarters of the 105-seats strong parliament. The ruling HHK together with its coalition partner Dashnaktsutyun compromise 65, the opposition Tsarukian Bloc 31 and Yelk alliance 9 seats. 100 parliamentarians participated in the voting, 90 of them voting for and 10 against Sarkissian. Therefore, the faction led by businessman Gagik Tsarukian sided with the ruling parties, as already expected due to its missing support for the Yelk alliance in going to court against the election. Important to notice are the three MPs of the HHK, Dashnaktsutyun and/or Tsarukian Bloc who voted against Sarkissian, noticeable because only 7 Yelk members participated in the vote. The election was held through secret ballot, so that the MPs remain unknown.
In his victory speech Sarkissian said “I want to thank those who voted for me and those who voted against me” and also mentioned that he “certainly” expects the MP’s and citizens’ support in the future. Although his power is limited, he wants to have an impact on politics and economics because in his opinion the Armenian society suffers from division, which he plans to “heal”. The outgoing president stated that the elections are a “milestone on the way of the establishment of the parliamentary democracy” referring to the constitutional change the country has been undergoing from a presidential to a parliamentary system of government.
Under the new constitution, the president is no longer elected by the people but by parliament. In the new parliamentary system, he will hold a mainly ceremonial and representative position because his veto powers will be reduced. On the other hand the prime minister will gain power and influence enormously. Official arguments for the change are strengthening democracy and pluralism, abolishing the “state led by one strong man”. Head of the responsible committee Gevork Kostanian denied criticism that the changes create a “super prime minister”.
Reactions by opposition and NGO’s Critical voices have been loud from the beginning, getting stronger after the announcement of the results. MP of the Yelk faction Mane Tandilyan publicly asked Sarkissian about the point of the election, if there is only one candidate without any opponents, saying “we have no choice, in fact”. She added that the issue of his citizenship has not been determined.
Said controversy originates from the law which sets that the president must have Armenian citizenship in the past six years leading up to his election. Sarkissian has been a British citizen between 2002 and 2011, when he says he renounced his citizenship and got his Armenian passport back. A group of NGO’s like the Transparency International’s Anticorruption Centre publicized a joint statement saying that Sarkissian “violated the requirement clearly set by the constitution that concerns citizenship” and that the parliamentary majority was “yet again guided by the political expedience of the moment rather than requirements of the law”. Backed by the parliamentary opposition, they insisted on getting proof of the renouncement since a British local magazine published a record from the UK registry of companies referring to Sarkissian as a British national in 2014. Sarkissian did not present any document but said that the information on the record was obsolete because the company it refers to, which he co-founded, already stopped working in 2010. Yelk leader Nikol Pashinian commented that the legitimacy of the candidate has to be doubted. Furthermore, the opposition and NGOs called Sarkissian’s inaction “suspicions” and it showed his “disrespect towards the constitution and citizens of the Republic of Armenia”.
Sarkissian originally studied physics and mathematics, was appointed Armenia’s first ambassador to the UK in 1991 and has held this position for three terms since then. He also worked as an advisor and intermediator for British companies. His candidacy is remarkable because as a president with a long history of living and working in the West, he does not fit Armenia’s growing cooperation with Russia, who remains an important influencer in Armenia. On the other hand, Armenia has signed a cooperation agreement with the EU at the end of 2017, and the new president could fit well in the declared ambitions of closer ties with the bloc.
Who is going to be the next prime minister? Eduard Sharmazanov, deputy speaker of parliament, announced that the discussions about the next prime minister will mainly take place in the week between 9 April (expiration of Sarkisan’s term) and the deadline 16 April. Due to their majority in parliament, the candidate supported by HHK and Dashnaktsutyun will most likely get the post. It is widely believed that current president Sarkisian will be nominated and remain in the position of top policymaker in Armenia, although in 2014 he promised not to “aspire” the position. Sharmazanov stated that it is the party’s right to nominate Sarkisian because it won the 2017 elections which obliges the party to be guided “by the interests of the citizens and the state”. He has also said that there is no one better for the post.
Opposition groups, led by Pashinian, call the possible nomination of Serzh Sarkisian both controversial and highly possible because of the transfer of power in the legislation’s changes. Pashinian said that if the current president does not hold his promise, it “could drastically escalate the political situation in Armenia”.
The prime minister’s election will remain controversial, as did the president’s election and soon his term in office. It is possible that the opposition will try to fight against both with the only avenue still open to it: street protests.