Saturday, December 08, 2012

Armenia: Opposition Builds Consensus Around Reform

This article originally appeared in the Institute for War and Peace Reporting,

Armenian Opposition Builds Consensus Around Reform

Proposal to strengthen parliament may be a way of finding an issue the various opposition groups can all agree on. 

Prosperous Armenia, a political party which recently switched to the opposition, is proposing far-reaching constitutional changes, in what analysts say is a bid to unite the anti-government camp around a single issue.

Under the plan, Armenia would adopt a system similar to reforms in neighbouring Georgia, where the prime minister and parliament are becoming more powerful than the president.

Naira Zohrabyan, secretary of Prosperous Armenia’s parliamentary group, says, “One way of solving the country’s problems, eliminating the political monopoly, and implementing essential reforms, is to change over to a parliamentary system of government. That would lead to a significant increase in the role and responsibility of political parties.”

The idea has long been favoured by other Armenian opposition parties, which believe it would give them more of a say in governing a country currently dominated by President Serzh Sargsyan’s Republican Party.

They have proposed not only shifting to a parliamentary model but also introducing fully proportional elections. At present, half the seats in parliament are elected by the first-past-the-post system, which tends to favour larger parties.

On February 29, the Heritage and Dashnaktsutyun parties introduced a bill to change the voting system, but legislators rejected it by 54 to 30.

About 12 of Prosperous Armenia’s 36 members of parliament, who were then part of the ruling coalition, sided with the opposition in the vote, although the party official opposed it.

Now that the party is in opposition – it announced its withdrawal from the coalition after the May parliamentary election – it appears to be aligning itself more closely with the other parties.

Narek Galstyan, of the Centre for European Studies, said constitutional reform was a neutral issue that could unite all of the parties outside the governing bloc.

“They are creating a platform for negotiations to link the positions of the various political groups, which they can then use to discuss more significant, strategic questions. This is just a pretext to unite the opposition,” he said.

Under the proposals now being discussed, the next president – an election is due in 2013 – would serve one year less than before, so that presidential and parliamentary elections could both take place in 2017. After those elections, parliament would take charge of running the country.

The issue could help Prosperous Armenia find common ground with Dashnaktsutyun, which has included constitutional reforms in its programme since 1991.

Artsvik Minasyan of Dashnaktsutyun said it was all about accountability.

“At the moment, the government as a whole bears responsibility for every matter. If we change to a parliamentary system, then each minister individually will bear responsibility,” he said.

The Republican Party says there is not enough time between now and the February presidential election to address the reform proposal properly. Hovhannes Sahakyan, secretary of the party’s parliamentary group, said it was really just a publicity stunt to kick-start the opposition’s campaign.

“Some political groups are trying to use this as a trump card ahead of the election,” he said.

The central council of the Rule of Law party, the junior partner in the ruling coalition, discussed the proposal on November 16, and concluded that introducing a parliamentary system would be unwise in almost every way.

“It’s such a difficult issue that it needs to be discussed not by politicians, but by experts and academics, and only after than should it be put on the agenda,” party spokesman Mher Shahgeldyan said.

Hrant Melik-Shahnazaryan, a analyst at the Mitk think-tank, said the Armenia’s unique and difficult geopolitical environment meant that a strong president would be needed if things deteriorated. Armenia has frosty relations with two of its neighbours, Azerbaijan and Turkey. While it is in good terms with the other two, Georgia and Iran, they have their own problems with Russia and the West, respectively. 
Arpi Harutyunyan works for the Armnews television channel.