Armenia’s (R)Evolutionary Breakthrough: Constitutionalism at Work?

By Syuzanna Vasilyan, 28 June 2018
New Armenian PM Nikol Pashinyan leading protests (photo credit: Reuters/Gleb Garanich)
New Armenian PM Nikol Pashinyan leading protests (photo credit: Reuters/Gleb Garanich)

The popular protests in Armenia have ushered in a new era of democratic hope. The new government has proposed reforms, including to the electoral law. Nevertheless, despite the ill-intention behind the transition to a parliamentary system of government, the system enjoys wide public support and there are no plans to reverse the transition. The consolidation of the gains of the Velvet Revolution requires support to nurture a culture of constitutionalism – writes Dr Syuzanna Vasilyan.  

Armenia’s transition from a semi-presidential, albeit hitherto in essence hyper-presidential, to a parliamentary form of government in April 2018 has led to an unexpected but pivotal turn in Armenian politics. A complex turn of events led to popular protests that ended with the appointment and resignation of former President Serzh Sargsyan in quick succession and his replacement by the opposition leader as the prime minster, despite the latter’s party having the minority of seats and the ruling Republican Party occupying a significant majority of the parliamentary seats.

While in Armenia’s history the constitution (re-)drafting process has been a tool in the hands of leaders to adapt the political landscape to their interests, the latest attempt stood out as the most alarming. In August 2013, then President Sargsyan, still head of the Republican Party of Armenia, had been suspected of engineering constitutional amendments to stay at the helm of the political scene when his second and last presidential term in office would expire. Sargsyan formed a Constitutional Commission on 5 September 2013, coincidentally one day after retreating from the course of closer integration ‘with’ the European Union, opting, instead, for membership in the Eurasian Customs Union later to become Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU). Armenia’s foreign policy of ‘complementarity’ was thereby switched into ‘supplementarity’ .

 Sargsyan had repeatedly denied that the shift to a parliamentary system was intended to bypass the presidential term limits.

The launching of the constitutional reform process had not gone without a warning by civil society activists engaged in the ‘No Pasaran’ campaign against the intent of Sargsyan and the Republican Party, which held the majority of seats in the National Assembly, to retain power. The latter had allegedly made use of bribery, intimidation and other manipulative tactics to gain votes both in the parliamentary and presidential elections, especially the notorious ones in 2008, which led to public accusations of and protests against fabricated electoral results, which ended with a police crackdown and the death of 10 civilians. Most importantly, the constitutional referendum held on 6 December 2016 was assessed by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, as well as the Citizen Observer Initiative and the European Platform for Democratic Elections, as having been marred by irregularities, violations and misuse of administrative and media resources by the ruling regime. Yet, only several hundred people gathered in front of the Central Electoral Commission (CEC) to call for the annulment of the results.

Despite repeatedly denying that the shift to a parliamentary system was intended to bypass the presidential term limits, Sargsyan announced that he would seek nomination to the post of the prime minster. The unprecedented popular discontent with the extant mode of political and economic  ‘(mal-)governance’ spurted out on 31 March 2018 as a march entitled ‘Take Your Step! Reject Serzh!’ by Nikol Pashinyan, the leader of the opposition Civil Contract party and member of the ‘Way Out’ bloc. The election of Sargsyan as Prime Minister on 26 April 2018 by the National Assembly, with 77 votes in favor and 17 against, magnified the upheaval instigating a series of demonstrations and strikes paralyzing the whole country. At their peak, the protests involved up to 250,000 people. They comprised all generations and, among others, representatives of the clergy and soldiers, who had gathered to express their solidarity with the popular demand. A few days later, Sargsyan resigned.

 Pashinyan is the first opposition politician to head the government.

The resignation of Sargsyan paved the way for the ascension to power of Pashinyan - the only ‘people’s candidate’ nominated by the ‘Way Out’ bloc, the official parliamentary opposition with nine seats. In the first vote to succeed Sargsyan on 1 May, Pashinyan’s candidacy was rejected with 45 votes in favor and 55 against. Nevertheless, as protests continued, a drastic change was witnessed on 8 May in the second vote when 59 votes were cast in favor and 42 against, making Pashinyan the first opposition politician to head the government. This must have been a strategic move by the Republican Party, which controlled a legislative majority, to prolong its lifeline by avoiding ‘suicide’ through dissolution of the parliament, as foreseen in the Constitution, which provides for dissolution by law in case of failure to elect a prime minister on a second attempt. The use of social media, especially Facebook, appeared crucial for Pashinyan and his fellow co-organizers for mobilizing the people, for transmitting key messages and ensuring that public order would not be violated so as not to provide legal grounds for the police to disrupt the protests.

The latest protests were peaceful and strictly a domestic affair.

Dubbed the ‘Velvet Revolution’, after the 1989 non-violent revolution in the then Czechoslovakia,  it stood out as a different type of a(n) (r)evolution in the former Soviet territory in the face of the Rose Revolution in Georgia and the Orange Revolutions in Ukraine in 2003 and 2004, respectively, without involvement of/reference to foreign actors, such as the United States, Russia, NATO or the EU. Additionally, the peaceful nature of Armenia’s (r)evolutionary breakthrough differed from the 2014 Euro-Maidan revolution in Ukraine where violent clashes ensued. While Pashinyan as a deputy of the Armenian National Assembly had objected to Sargsyan’s decision to reverse the country’s trajectory from closer integration with the EU to entry into the EAEU, as the leader of the Velvet Revolution, he publicly pledged that all of Armenia’s international commitments will be respected. Unlike the previous cases of civil disobedience in Armenia, manifested through numerous rallies in the past two decades with differing outcomes qua success and implicating foreign actors, the latest protests remained strictly a domestic affair.

What now?

The Velvet Revolution marked a quick political success in sync with the set out short-term and narrowly defined goal of precluding Sargsyan from the prime ministership. Sargsyan resigned on 23 April, prior to the annual commemoration of the Armenian Genocide on 24 April. Yet, the Republican Party still holds the majority of the seats in the Armenian parliament and represents a potential stumbling block for the initiatives of the new government. The medium-term specific objective of the 2018 civic protests includes the revision of the Electoral Code, which had not tackled the abuse of administrative resources. Pashinyan wishes to replace the ‘rating’-based (ranking) election system, which was contrived because of its appeal to the Republican Party, with a simple proportional system. Additional changes may be incorporated as a result of political discussions. Pashinyan envisages to have the revised draft of the Electoral Code by the end of June 2018. Meanwhile, a pre-requisite for revision of the Electoral Code should be the change of the composition of the CEC, which has been accused of overlooking mistabulation, vote rigging, ballot box stuffing, list fraud, carousel voting, etc. in the 2017 parliamentary elections.

The new government plans to amend the electoral law to shift to a simple proportional system. 

Equal treatment of all citizens through the establishment of justice and dignified life, and improvement of socio-economic conditions via the tackling of corruption, cronyism, nepotism and clientelism is a more generic medium-term goal. The success of this goal may require political lustration and institutional cleansing rather than solely new nominations and mere refurbishment of institutions. The longer-term and overarching aspiration has been the assurance of constitutionalism, i.e. abidance by law, which has so far remained on paper and illusive in practice. Instead, political practice has been replete with illegal and evasive actions favouring the ruling class. Constitutionalism should be enforced so that public confidence in the political process is cultivated and substantive democracy acquires a momentum.

The EU was merely reactive to recent developments on the ground first congratulating Sargsyan, then Pashinyan with the premiership. 

The election of Pashinyan as prime minister and the formation of a new government with a younger team have resulted in a staggering makeover of Armenia in light of high public expectations. Because of socio-economic desperation owing to high rate of poverty and unemployment, political disenchantment with personalized politics and one-party rule, the parliamentary system of government enjoys public support. The daily Facebook live broadcasts by the current Prime Minister and Ministers are followed by Armenians both in the country and in the diaspora. While the EU had hailed the transition to a parliamentary system as more pliable to democracy, it was merely reactive to recent developments on the ground first congratulating Sargsyan, then Pashinyan with the premiership. With the Armenian National Assembly having ratified the EU-Armenia Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement (CEPA), it is currently pending ratification by the European Parliament and EU member states. which could be a vehicle for closer legal approximation and/or harmonization provided there is political will and further democratic consolidation in Armenia. Meanwhile, Armenia’s new leadership, which took part in the summit of the Supreme Eurasian Economic Council on 14 May 2018 and the Defence Ministers’ Council of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) on 23 May 2018 has conveyed appreciation of the economic relations and the strategic alliance with Russia in the context of the lingering Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

Pashinyan is willing to resign from his post to trigger parliamentary dissolution and an early election. 

The government  adopted the draft program on 1 June 2018.  In an extraordinary session on 7 June 2018, the National Assembly backed the program by a vote of 62 in favor and 39 against. Under the Constitution, in case of failure to approve a proposed budget, the parliament would be dissolved, implying another potential ‘suicide’ for the Republican party if it did not approve the government program.  While dissolution was the scenario favored by the new government, in the current state of affairs, the other constitutional option for ‘re-ordering’ the legislature is the resignation of the Prime Minister, which Pashinyan is  willing to seek. New elections would then have to be held within a year, as proposed in the program. The program, among others, envisages the reform of the Electoral Code, which would make the electoral system fully proportional, allow the development of new auto-updated voter lists, exclude double voting through checking of finger prints, offer free and equal media coverage time to all political forces, create a body, which would be charged with fighting against illegal influence and bribing of citizens and, thus, to ensure free and fair elections. Meanwhile, the potential elections to be scheduled within a year, as proposed in the draft program, will not result in a parliament with the same composition given the lacking and/or waning public support to the Republican Party, which has a majority, and the current government’s guarantees for transparent elections. While ‘(b)locked in transition’ for almost three decades, characterized by the choice of ‘exit’, also known as emigration, after one’s ‘voice’ via protests was not heard, Armenia seems to have exited this ‘trap’ as a state. Once given a start, already exhibited through the long-awaited endeavors undertaken by the new government, Armenia’s reform-prone stamina is likely to be sustained.

Concluding remarks

The short-term objective of Armenia’s Velvet Revolution has been only partially fulfilled and the challenge confronted by the current leadership is to manage cohabitation with the Republican Party. In the medium-term, it would be fundamental to accomplish the sought changes to the Electoral Code after, most importantly, re-constituting the CEC. Despite the ill-intentions and personal ambition behind the shift to a parliamentary system of government, the new system enjoys public support and the new government is determined to call it to life rather than resort to constitutional re-engineering.

The Armenian experience demonstrates that making the higher law subservient to individual and partisan interests and usurping power cannot go unpunished by the public. When legal legitimacy is lost and political representation is not ensured, the street becomes the sole venue for demanding accountability. In addition to the proposed and other necessary reforms, the solidification of the gains of the public protests requires the establishment of the rule of law, checks and balances, especially the independence of the judiciary from the executive branch, and good governance. In the long-term, cultural transformation should be assured whereby the constitution and the law will be heeded in practice by political officials, civil servants and the citizens as bearers of constitutionalism.  

Dr Syuzanna Vasilyan is an Armenian scholar based at the Institute for European Studies, Universite Libre de Bruxelles.


Disclaimer: The views expressed in Voices from the Field contributions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect International IDEA’s positions.


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