YEREVAN (RFE/RL)—Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian on Thursday held a series of meetings with representatives of the country’s political parties to discuss plans for a controversial constitutional reform initiated by his administration.
Under the draft concept of constitutional amendments unveiled by a committee of experts last year Armenia will become a parliamentary republic with a powerful prime minister and a largely ceremonial president. Most opposition parties in Armenia fear lest Sarkisian, whose second and final presidential term ends in 2018, should use this circumstance to remain in a senior government position after leaving his current post. Sarkisian has pledged not to seek such a post if the reform is carried out, but as leader of the ruling Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) he is certain to remain influential in Armenian politics even without a formal government position.
Still last year the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission gave a generally positive assessment to the draft concept, saying that the proposed changes in the Armenian Constitution would “strengthen democratic principles and establish the necessary conditions for ensuring the rule of law and respect for human rights.” At the same time, the commission noted that the transition to a parliamentary republic requires “broad consensus within society.”
Only one parliamentary minority party, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF), openly backed the idea of reforming the Constitution to turn Armenia into a parliamentary republic. The other four minority factions in the Armenian parliament, including the Prosperous Armenia Party (BHK), the Armenian National Congress (HAK), Heritage and Orinats Yerkir, questioned the need for the reform.
Three of those opposition parties, including the BHK, the HAK and Heritage, held a series of rallies in Yerevan and elsewhere in the country last fall demanding solutions to pressing economic and social problems as well as urging Sarkisian to abandon his plans to change the basic law.
The current administration’s plans for amending the Constitution appeared to be the catalyst for the dramatic showdown in February in which President Sarkisian and his ruling HHK effectively forced tycoon Gagik Tsarukian, one of the vocal opponents of the reform, to resign as BHK leader and retire from politics.
Members of the BHK, which declared itself to be in opposition to the Sarkisian government after the change of leadership last week, sounded less categorical in their criticism regarding the constitutional reform since then.
The BHK’s newly elected leader Naira Zohrabian and other senior members of the party met with President Sarkisian today to discuss issues related to the constitutional reform.
BHK spokesperson Vahan Babayan issued a statement on the results of the meeting, saying that representatives of the BHK “reaffirmed their position on the constitutional changes that had been stated before.” He did not elaborate.
Meanwhile, President Sarkisian, according to his press service, also met with several other critics of the reform, including the leader of Orinats Yerkir, Artur Baghdasarian, and two other senior members of the party. No details of their discussion were revealed immediately.
Earlier, talking to RFE/RL’s Armenian Service (Azatutyun), senior member of the opposition Heritage party Armen Martirosian said that they had set a number of conditions to the government, including the transition from the current mixed system of parliamentary elections based on party-list and single-mandate constituency votes to a legislature elected solely on the party-list basis. Heritage also wants the names and addresses of citizens who go to the polls to be published after elections. Its representative said it would consider participating in the discussions on the contents of the constitutional amendments if these and some other conditions are met.
(Government officials have insisted that abolishing elections from single-mandate constituencies will affect representation of provinces in the unicameral Armenian parliament, while the publication of lists of citizens who take part in the elections is against the principle of secret ballot.)
The opposition Armenian National Congress (HAK), meanwhile, reiterated its strong opposition to the constitutional reform. HAK parliamentary leader Levon Zurabian told RFE/RL’s Armenian Service (Azatutyun) that they will continue to oppose the changes even if they are left alone in this struggle.
According to the presidential press office, on Thursday President Sarkisian also met with representatives of the ARF and a number of extraparliamentary parties.