Karen Tovmasyan

The ruling Republican party representatives and their allies from the Dashnakcutyun party say "YES"; their main opponents from Armenian National Congress party say "NO" and that it will move Armenia closer to dictatorship and autocracy.

Debates about semi-presidential or parliamentary systems are no longer rhetorical in Armenia. This issue has become the number 1 topic on the political agenda of the country.

On March 13, President Serzh Sargsyan during a meeting with the Commission of Constitutional Reforms announced the start of the second stage of the process. The project of constitutional changes presented to the public suggests a move from the semi-presidential system to the parliamentary system of governance. Sargsyan ordered the commission to review the project for the next 10 months, after which it is expected  the project will be discussed in Parliament. If it gets  66 votes out of131, it should be voted on in a national referendum.

The referendum has many opponents, not only in parliament, but also in society. Civil activists and NGOs are already signaling, that this step could move Armenia closer to autocracy or even dictatorship.

"There is a wrong perception, that the  nations with parliamentary systems are more democratic then the nations with the presidential system. If so, then North Korea would be more democratic than the United States, says political expert Armen Grigoryan,who is a member ofthe civil initiative group "No Passaran" which was formed to oppose the constitutional referendum.

He says history shows that a parliamentary system very often cements autocratic regimes, as it gives them a legal opportunity to stay in power longer, while a presidential system limits the head of the state through term limits, after which the head of the country has to leave office.

In the 20 years since adopting the current constitution, Armenia has never faced a constitutional crisis, this is why the opponents to constitutional reforms say there is no need to change the constitution. According to these opponents, the constitutional reforms aim to prolong the power of the current president, who according to the current constitution has to leave office after the end of his second term in 2018. According to this viewpoint, following a change of the constitution, the number one figure of the country would be the speaker of the parliament, and Sargsyan as chairman of the ruling Republican party can take over that position after the end of his second presidential term in 2018. According to the opponents of the constitutional reforms, statements that the parliamentary system will make Armenia more democratic are just a cover for the real ambitions of the current president.

"Give the best constitution to the regimes of Armenia, Azerbaijan,  the Islamic Republic of Iran and North Korea, and they will still have the same situation as they have now. Not the constitution, but the political will and the perspectives of the ruling elite are the reasons why these states are in the position they are in," says prominent Armenia human rights defender Vardan Harutyunyan, who spent 8.5 years in prison and 3 years in exile for opposing the Soviet regime.

 Harutyunyan insists the current constitution is not an obstacle to good governance. He says citizens need to change not the constitution, but the current government, who he says is ignoring the constitution.

 Opponents of the constitutional reforms also say that they do not feel confident in the electoral system. They say the current president can falsify the results of any referendum.

According to the chairman of the NGO "Cooperation for Democracy" Stepan Danielyan, "the citizens of Armenia do not trust the electoral system. Before holding the referendum, the electoral code must be changed. Only then I am ready to take part in the debates on constitutional reforms and then go to the polling station."

Danielyan also believes the suggested constitutional reforms aim to prolong the personal power of Sargsyan. But he also say the proposed parliamentary model may contain some risks to the personal power of the current president, and that the president will support not the parliamentary model, but some hybrid model which will serve his political ambitions even better.

"Sargsyan does not have a proper vision yet. In a parliamentary system, Sargsyan may face a reduction of personal power," says Danielyan.

While opponents of constitution reforms insist the current constitution is adequate, supporters of the reforms say the current constitution creates problems and obstacles for Armenia. They contend, that even if the constitution model of Armenia is semi-presidential,  in reality, the president of the country is too influential. They say a parliamentary model would help the development of political parties, which are too weak now.

According to the chairman of the NGO "Civil Society Institute" Artak Kirakosyan, "we feel the need for constitutional reforms. The current system in many ways creates obstacles to the development of the state. The president has his superior power and its impact surrounds all the other power bases."Kirakosyan says civil society representatives must be active in the discussions and do their best to improve the project.

The opinion that the constitution reforms project will better support the separation of powers is shared by Haykuhi Asatryan, the chairman of the NGO "Defender of the Rights Without Borders". Haykuhi says there are some positive points in the human rights chapter of the project, but also says she has noticed that the political chapter of the project has some points which raise big concerns and overshadow the positive points.

According to Harutyunyan,  "the ruling Republican party with its political monopoly aims to use these changes to strengthen its position. Any talk that these reforms may balance the political field in the country are naive."