Armenia to change from presidential to parliamentary system following Constitutional referendum

Tue 15 Dec 2015

Armenia to change from presidential to parliamentary system following Constitutional referendum

On 13 December, a week after a controversial referendum was held on the change of Armenia’s current presidential to a parliamentary system, the Central Election Commission (CEC) unanimously voted to approve it. President Serzh Sarkisian (HKK) said these amendments are necessary to prevent political instability, while opposition fears this is a way for Sarkisian to stay in power after his presidential term ends in 2018. Ahead of the referendum many protests by both the “yes” and “no” camp were held, illustrating society’s divide on the politics in the country.

Opposition claims turnout was low

According to the CEC the voter turnout was 51 percent, barely enough to make the vote valid, with 63 percent of voters backing the constitutional amendments. According to HAK only about one-third of eligible voters went out to vote, with up to 70 percent of them voting against the amendment. Former president Levon Ter-Petrosian (HAK) ahead of the election called on people to vote, saying that “the more real people -- I repeat, real people -- come out and vote, the more objective the referendum results will be”. Other opposition parties, including the Zharangutyun (Heritage) party, vowed to protest the vote as its leader Raffi Hovannisian was seen throwing his teared up ballot in a ballot box. The opposition fears that the constitutional change is used by President Serzh Sarkisian to stay in power for a long time, even when his final Presidential term ends. Under the proposed amendments the Parliament will have broader powers, while the President will hold a more ceremonial position and will no longer be directly elected by the people, but by Parliament. The Presidential term will also be extended from five to seven years. According to some, this would make Sarkisian’s HKK too powerful. HAK MP Stepan Demirchyan urged to “change not a constitution, but this leadership, which intends to reincarnate itself”. While former President Robert Kocharian (HKK) said that “the constitutional draft carries substantial risks that the country will slide into a de facto one-party system".

Breach of the will of the Armenian people”
After the preliminary results were announced HAK and Zharangutyun asked for a recount in many precincts, but most of these requests were not granted before the deadline. The ruling Republican Party (HKK) also asked for a number of recounts, that were granted and reaffirmed the announced results. HKK spokesman Eduard Sharmazanov said that “as a result of the recount conducted in several precincts, the number of ‘Yes’ votes actually rose”. Despite a lack of trust from the opposition, they filed appeals with the CEC to annul the results. HAK activist Armen Khachatrian said “it may be naïve to pin hopes on these electoral bodies, but even if there is a 0.1 percent chance [of success,] we must take it”. Levon Zurabian called on authorities to publish the voting list of five random precincts , as “republican falsifiers keep those lists as a top state secret because they know that if those lists are publicized and examined it will become clear that they completely breached the will of the Armenian people.” The authorities have not responded to this request. Prosecutor-General Gevorg Kostanian said that 460 reports of alleged fraud were made and 141 criminal cases were opened, although as of today no charges have been brought The CEC in its approval of the amendments said that  “no violations that could impact the referendum results were reported” and “legal evidence of their possible influence on the referendum results is needed”. EduardSharmazanov said that “the public has no serious doubts regarding the outcome of the referendum” and the “referendum corresponded to Armenia’s international obligations”. 

HAK and Zharanhutyun and several civil society movements have announced to keep protesting the vote and are looking to appeal the results in court. In order to bring the appeal to the Constitutional Court, at least 27 MPs will have to back their proposal. HAK currently holds seven seats in parliament, while Zharanhutyan has five seats.