Armenian Opposition proposes transition to Parliamentary Republic.

The Office of the President of Armenia in Yerevan.

Ahead of next year’s presidential elections in Armenia it is not yet clear who the contestants are going to be. But as Karina Gould reports for CEW the debate is shifting from personalities to process as radical new ideas for constitutional changes are proposed. The Prosperous Armenia Party (PAP), the second largest faction in the Armenian National Assembly, while it has not confirmed whether it will be fielding a candidate in next year’s February Presidential election has indicated what kind of candidate it would support. Such a candidate, party spokesperson Naira Zohrabyan said, would be a “technical” president, willing to embark on the tough road of political reform seeking to implement a completely list-based proportional representation (PR) system for parliament, eradicating the single-mandate constituencies, and moving from a presidential to a parliamentary form of government in an effort to curtail the sweeping powers of the President in Armenia.

Zohrabyan also mentioned that after touring the regions to get a feel for the political sentiments, its likely to be PAP leader Gagik Tsarukyan – though the media continues to speculate about the candidature prospects of former Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian, currently under investigation on charges of money-laundering.

As it stands, the executive powers of the President of the Republic of Armenia are far-reaching. According to an International Crisis Group report following the May 2012 parliamentary elections, the current constitution, adopted in 2005, “gives the president strong executive powers.” The president nominates and appoints the prime minister and the cabinet, the prosecutor general, judges and the president of the Central Bank, who are then approved by parliament. However, the report notes that parliamentary oversight is, at best, “weak.” It is noteworthy that most legislation comes directly from the office of the President, with parliament acting more as a rubber stamp approving the President’s decisions rather than holding the executive to account. The president enjoys direct control over the army, police, national security service and the justice system.

The idea of parliamentary reform is by no means a new one in Armenia. In fact, opposition parties such as the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF), the Armenian National Congress (ANC) and the Heritage Party have long advocated for parliamentary reform and have all expressed their support for the PAP suggestion, leading political analysts in Armenia to speculate that this might be a broad enough policy proposal to unite the opposition forces behind a single candidate to compete against incumbent President and Republican Party of Armenia candidate Serzh Sargsyan. Apart from Heritage Party leader, Raffi Hovannisian, no other candidates have officially emerged so far.

“One can only welcome [the] PAP’s coming to the same conviction,” noted Vahan Hovhannisyan, a Member of Parliament of the ARF, recalling that the ARF has always advocated for PR electoral reform as well as a stronger parliament. “Naturally,” he said, “consultation with them [the PAP] around this issue [is] possible.” The ARF in addition to parliamentary reform hopes that the dialogue initiated by the PAP could include reserving leadership opportunities for opposition parties in the Civil Service Council, State Commission for the Protection of Economic Competition and the Public Services Regulatory Commission, in order to dilute the power of the executive. Armen Martirosyan, Vice-Chairman of the Heritage party, also expressed his party’s interest in the proposed reform, “especially [since] we ourselves have repeatedly spoken in favour of this reform and even came up with a relevant legislative initiative during the last session of parliament.”

The ANC has also expressed its interest in furthering discussions with the PAP and hopes that these talks will lead to “a broader programme of real mechanisms and steps for the consolidation of political and public forces against the ruling regime.” Proposed reforms by the ANC include, joint mechanisms of no confidence votes, rallies to support civil engagement, and a plan to tackle corruption. The governing Republican Party of Armenia (RPA), however, has been less receptive to the proposed amendments, calling the PAP suggestion “short-sighted” and “politically motivated.” Eduard Sharmazanov, RPA spokesperson, alluded that the reforms are coming from former President Robert Kocharyan, who “simply [wishes] to come to power.” Sharmazanov continued that “the true faces of real players will be revealed shortly.” Kocharyan, who some believe to be the force behind the PAP and suspect to have had a role in the PAP’s decision following the May 2012 parliamentary elections to withdraw support for the RPA, has remained silent on the issue.

The PAP, on the other hand, has been quick to come back and defend its motivations. “That decision,” confirmed Zohrabyan to RFE/RL’s Armenian service, “was entirely ours.” “It’s up to the Republican Party to decide whether to participate in discussions,” she added. So far all four opposition parties (though the PAP prefers to refer to its party as a political “alternative” rather than an “opposition party”) have begun to conduct discussions and consultations about what exactly political reform in Armenia would like and by when.

The ARF has suggested they would be interested in seeing reforms initiating in late 2015, whereas the PAP are proposing full transition in 2017. Either way, the proposal appears to be laying the framework for both positive political discussion and perhaps even a platform on which the non-government parties can find common ground, moving towards the possibility of nominating a single candidate to run against incumbent President Sargsyan. Uniting behind a single candidate, however, is not necessarily an easy task as the PAP, ARF, ANC, and Heritage parties all have different ideas as to what and when electoral reform should be. Moreover, the heritage party has already announced that its leader will enter the presidential race, which might represent a challenge if other candidates present themselves from the remaining three parties, especially as the PAP, though they have yet to announce a candidate, has alluded to the “technical” presidential candidate of 2013 coming from within their ranks.

Report prepared by Karina Gould for CEW with additional reporting from RFE/RL and