BY RAZMIG SHIRINIAN
A constitutional referendum in Armenia is set to change the country into a fully parliamentary republic. It is set to change the existing constitution, adopted in 1995, which clearly outlines the presidential model of democracy and explains the workings of the current Armenian political system. First, what is notable in the existing constitutional language concerning presidential power is the outright authority and the minimal, if any, flexibility for interpretation. The president is explicitly given the constitutional authority “to ensure the regular functioning of the legislative, executive and judicial powers” (see, for example, Chapter 3, Article 49 of the Constitution). In the current constitutional design, the practice of decision-making and public policy in Armenia are primarily confined within the executive power and the presidential model of democracy.
Many advocates of a strong executive argue for an effective government and the need for a president who possesses broad constitutional powers to promote the nation’s security and holds the essential responsibility in the conduct of domestic and foreign affairs. However, this argument overlooks the need for independent functioning of the legislative and judicial institutions which are largely reduced to presidential decrees. In this context, Armenia fails to practice a clear system of checks and balances, or an institutionalized system of government that works on its own accord.
Specific limitations on the legislative (the National Assembly) are clearly noted in Chapters 3 and 4 of the current Constitution. One of the most important limitations is the presidential dissolution of the National Assembly, “if the National Assembly does not give an approval to the program of the Government two times in succession within two months” (Chapter 4, Article 74, clause 1). Three other clauses in the same article further authorize the President to dissolve the National Assembly: Upon the recommendation of the Chairman of the National Assembly or the Prime Minister, the President may resolve the National Assembly:
a. If the National Assembly fails within three months to resolve on the draft law deemed urgent by the decision of the Government; or
b. If in the course of a regular session no sittings of the National Assembly are convened for more than three months; or
c. If in the course of a regular session the National Assembly fails for more than three months to adopt a resolution on issues under debate. Although justified within the executive logic, these and similar constitutional provisions outline the powers largely exercised on a daily basis by presidential appointees.
The primary concern, here, is the fact that these non-elected and appointed government officials, in the last twenty five years, have hardly been responsive to the public.
Thus, the current concern is prevalent. There is an uneasy relationship between the government and society in Armenia. Surveys conducted by Caucasian Barometer, for example, indicate that people, in general, tend to regard the government largely non-benevolent and non-efficient in public policy and in development of the country. Consequently, key questions arise: What explains this relationship and the ensuing negligence in public policy and infrastructural development since independence in 1991? How to advance the dynamics of public policy and development of the country? And what might be their implications for the future of the Armenian politics? These and similar questions explore the prospective role of the future parliaments in building the country and, in turn, the extent of influence the public might gain to exercise.
Within the current executive institution, the system of collective leadership – typically found among cabinet members in a parliamentary system that form a coalition and share leadership responsibility – is incompatible with centralized presidential authority and inconsistent with democratic practice in Armenian. The president is not first among the elected officials; rather, he is the person in charge. Cabinet members, or the Government as stated in the Constitution, are presidential appointees, serving at the president’s wish. They are far from being accountable to the public. The precarious conditions of the people, both the masses and organized groups, are an indication of the omnipresent elitism of the Armenian political system. As a consequence, public policy in Armenia remains limited to the elite preferences and renders the multiplicity of social and economic needs of the populace largely hampered.
Razmig B. Shirinian is a Professor of Political Science at the College of the Canyons.