Armenia At A Crossroads: Referendum To Decide Country’s Fate

Armenians have voted in a referendum on constitutional reform which could result in the overhaul of the country's governing system. REUTERS/Hayk Baghdasaryan

Thousands of Armenians vote in a referendum on constitutional reform

BY Staff Reporter

DUBAI, Dec 7 – For the third time in its modern history, Armenia held a referendum aimed at changing its constitution from semi-presidential to parliamentary.

Almost 2,000 polling stations throughout the country opened their doors to 2.5 million citizens, whose voting was monitored by local and international organizations, such as Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) observation mission, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), the Armenian media report.

The Republic of Armenia, which was among the first ones to declare independence from the Soviet Union in 1990, sees Western-style parliamentary democracy as an ideal form of rule, which is why the National Assembly approved President Serzh Sargsyan’s proposal to amend the constitution almost immediately.

From Electricity to Constitutional Reform

The central streets of the Armenian capital witnessed massive –though peaceful– protests in June by citizens demanding an end to increased electricity tariffs.

“The price rise instituted by the Russian energy company that controls Armenia’s electricity grid was subsequently subsidized by the government, and discussions about political reform were instituted,” stated a report in The Guardian.

There is a strong connection between power tariffs and constitution reform as, protests around electricity prices ultimately led to a debate on the holding of a referendum. It was the peaceful protests that proved to trigger opposition parties, like the Armenian National Congress, to create various anti-government movements and campaigns.

The Guardian describes one of the campaigns –No Campaign– as “powered by social media … represent[ing] rising public frustration with a government overwhelmingly perceived as corrupt, self-serving, and out-of-touch.”

Soon after the protests, Sargsyan sent a draft with constitutional amendments to parliament on Aug. 21. On Oct. 5, the National Assembly approved the holding of the plebiscite. A few days later, the president signed a decree to hold a referendum on Dec. 6. The text of the referendum was: “Do you agree with the draft amendments to the Constitution of the Republic of Armenia?” reported TASS- Russia’s news agency.

If the majority votes ‘yes’ in the referendum, the country’s president will lose their power to the parliament and prime minister specifically. This move has been seen as one that will supposedly stabilize the political system and strengthen democracy. However, according to a political analyst, who wished to remain anonymous due to security concerns, told Newsweek Middle East: “Democracy is not about the form of government; it is essentially about the rule of law, good governance and free judicial system; and parliamentary form of government is not a prerequisite for a ‘better’ democracy.

“As opposed to a pluralistic, minority model, this is a majority model, where the elected legislature concentrates all the powers in its hands. So the checks-and-balances system is degraded to nothing,” added the expert.

Sargsyan, however, says changes in governance are needed to prevent further political instability. His supporters agree.

“We will have a political stagnation in the country, if we don’t support these changes,” the president said earlier this week.

“The changes will make cooperation between different branches of government more effective … and facilitate economic development and the protection of human rights,” he added.

“Under the changes, the president will no longer be elected by popular vote, but by parliament. The winner would stay in the job for seven years instead of the current five, but would only have largely ceremonial powers,” reported Reuters.

The fate of the Armenian political system will be decided by Dec. 13.

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