New Laws to Live By: European bodies like draft Constitution changes, opposition doesn’t

After four days of debates the National Assembly has adopted a new draft of constitutional amendments. The draft of the ruling coalition, although acceptable for European structures, was not acceptable for the Armenian opposition.

The opposition stopped its 18-month boycott to take part in the discussions, but on the next to last day of the discussions left the hall stating that they would vote against the changes (one wing of the opposition – the Ardarutyun bloc member Hanrapetutyun party had not ceased the boycott).

Constitutional amendments have been the most debated political topic of the last three months, and have been broadcast live on television. On May 11, the National Assembly adopted a draft of constitutional amendments in the first reading that was little different from the existing one (click here to see previous ArmeniaNow report); the branches of government were not separated, and the President had unlimited powers.

On May 27, the Council of Europe Press Service disseminated a report saying that the adopted draft had deeply disappointed the Venice Commission’s working group and that it needed drastic changes. The Venice Commission’s working group and representatives of the Armenian authorities met in Strasbourg on June 23-24 and an agreement was reached to amend the controversial provisions. As a result, a new draft of changes was worked out.

Thus, under pressure of European bodies Armenia’s authorities agreed to make new amendments.

Three key provisions are introduced in the new revised draft:

Yerevan’s mayor is elected (by a council of elders, who are also elected. Presently, the mayor is appointed by the President). 2. The President appoints judges according to proposals of the Justice Council (unlike the previous provision according to which the Chairman of the Justice Council was appointed by the President, and under the Constitution currently in force the President is the Chairman of the Justice Council). The Prime Minister is responsible only to the National Assembly and the President cannot dismiss him. The President appoints a Prime Minister enjoying the support of a parliamentary majority.

Further, half of the members of the Television and Radio Commission are elected by the National Assembly, and the other half are appointed by the President. (Currently, all members of the Commission are appointed by the President. The controversial closure of A1+ TV can be explained by the dependence of the Commission on the President.)

During the last month ambassadors of European countries to Armenia on several occasions hailed the new constitutional changes submitted by the coalition and urged the country’s opposition to participate in the discussions of these changes.

The opposition admitted that this draft is a positive step compared to the previous one, but said it still has unacceptable provisions.

The opposition, in particular the Ardarutyun bloc, had submitted five proposals which were not considered in the changes.

Another major argument for which the opposition is against the draft is that if the Constitution is adopted now, the changes will be made, according to the chapter of transitional provisions, in June 2007, after the new parliamentary elections, and part of them will come into effect a year later.

The opposition leaders stated that they would vote against the draft, and Ardarutyan bloc member Shavarsh Kocharyan said that in his opinion the opposition must remain neutral and let the authorities convince the people to vote in favor of the changes. He said that this draft is not a child of the coalition, as it was created under European pressure and shows how within just three months the same people presented basically different changes. Neither is it a child of the opposition, as no proposal of the opposition was included. Coalition representatives said that the changes from the very outset proceeded from the opposition’s proposals and were not the result of pressure from the West.

In political analysts’ opinion, because of the opposition’s stance the constitutional referendum will either not be held or else the authorities will rig the results.

Political analyst Vardan Poghosyan, who took an immediate part in the Strasbourg meeting and had a part in the changes, says that this draft with all its shortcomings is democratic and it would be better if these changes worked. But the people will not accept them, as they were not created in an atmosphere of political accord: “The Constitution is not only a legal document, it is also a political document and first of all the result of political agreements,” he says. “The authorities were reluctant to reach political agreement. Besides, if the authorities are proponents of reforms, why don’t they want the key changed provisions to go into effect soon?

“On the other hand, the opposition could have acted more competently, stopping its boycott, submitting its constitutional draft and stressing 10 points intelligibly for the people, and then urge the people to vote for them if they are included in the changes. But in any case, the opposition is little to blame. The authorities showed that they would not stop at anything and would not go to agreement.”

The constitutional changes are likely to be put to a referendum in November.