YEREVAN (RFE/RL)—The Armenian National Assembly began debating on Tuesday President Serzh Sarkisian’s constitutional reform package envisaging a radical change to Armenia’s government system, which opposition parties say would prolong his rule.
The long list of amendments drafted by an ad hoc presidential commission reached the floor of parliament nearly one month after being sent to parliament leadership. Earlier this month the Sarkisian administration agreed to revise some of the proposed amendments in an effort to satisfy the Council of Europe and some opposition groups that seem ready to back Armenia’s transformation into a parliamentary republic.
Vartan Poghosian, a member of the commission, told lawmakers that the draft amendments could undergo more changes during the debates in parliament. He said the commission is open to constructive proposals that would “further improve” the text.
Two opposition parties represented in the parliament, the Armenian National Congress (HAK) and Zharangutyun (Heritage), remained adamant in categorically rejecting the proposed reform. They insisted that Sarkisian is keen to remain in power in a different capacity after his second and final presidential term expires in 2018.
“He should be sent to prison in a manner defined by law, instead of having a bill prolonging his tenure debated here,” declared Zaruhi Postanjian, an outspoken deputy from Zharangutyun.
The verbal attack provoked angry rebuttals from some of her colleagues affiliated with the ruling Republican Party of Armenia (HHK). They repeatedly interrupted Postanjian’s speech.
Sarkisian should not quit power after completing his second and final term in 2018, deputies from the ruling Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) said during ongoing parliamentary debates on constitutional changes sought by him.
One of those lawmakers, Margarit Yesayan, blasted opposition statements that the controversial amendments to the Armenian constitution must be thwarted because they would enable Sarkisian to prolong his rule through the country’s transformation into a parliamentary republic.
“Why can’t he do that? Which one of you is better than Serzh Sarkisian?” Yesayan told opposition deputies at the start of the debates on Tuesday.
“Look at his biography. Why should a politician and statesman with such a rich background stay at home after the end of his tenure?” she said, adding that Sarkisian’s continued presence in government is essential for Armenia.
Yesayan’s remarks were echoed by other HHK deputies on Wednesday. “He must hold some position [after 2018,]” one of them, Ruben Hovsepian, told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am). “He must participate in state building.”
When asked which state post Sarkisian should occupy after the end of his presidential tenure, Hovsepian said, “Any position he wants. In any case, he would be wrong to stay at home.”
The HAK’s parliamentary leader, Levon Zurabian, demanded, meanwhile, that the debate be broadcast live on state television. Sahakian announced later in the day that the Public Television of Armenia has agreed to start broadcasting the proceedings on Wednesday.
With the HHK and its allies enjoying a comfortable majority in the assembly, the constitutional bill will almost certainly win parliamentary approval later this month. This will pave the way for a referendum on the proposed changes.
“I think that we will be prepared to hold the referendum in early December, if the National Assembly gives a positive opinion,” said Vahram Baghdasarian, the HHK’s parliamentary leader.
Baghdasarian suggested that the parliament could tentatively endorse the draft amendments as early as this week. “We think it right to quickly complete the first phase [of the debate] so that we have more time to work on proposals,” he said.
The HAK and Zharangutyun have pledged to spare no effort to try to scuttle the reform. On Saturday, they joined more than two dozen non-governmental organizations in forming an alliance that will campaign against it. The alliance plans to hold rallies across the country in the run-up to the referendum.