Parliamentarism in Armenia

Armenia got a chance to move toward building a real parliamentary democracy. But unless a parliament representing the will of people is formed, one cannot say that a full parliamentary system exists in Armenia.

პარლამენტის შენობა სომხეთში

The political regime established in Armenia before 2018 was viewed as non-democratic by a range of domestic and international organisations, Armenian political opposition groups, and a vast majority of civil society organisations. For instance, the Freedom House, a respected watchdog organisation, described Armenia as a semi-consolidated authoritarian regime; international observers’ missions observing elections mentioned that the ruling party and the state are merged in Armenia.

It should be noted that before the spring of 2018, a semi-presidential system of government was run in Armenia. However, in a non-democratic regime such as the one existent in Armenia, a formal system of government cannot perform itself properly as far as other – shadow, anti-democratic – structures are de facto in place. Therefore, we cannot really assess to what extent the semi-presidential system was effective in Armenia if at all. Still, all this does not mean that various types of systems of government don’t have any influence on politics of authoritarian countries at all. Armenian semi-presidential system fostered concentration of power in the hands of one man – the President. The Prime-Minister and the Government were formal institutions heavily dependent on the President’s apparatus, which translates in reality – on a small group of oligarchs. If needed a responsible, the latter could be blamed for various fails and unsolved problems. And the parliament, as many argued, had become the body that simply sealed the decisions made by the executive body of government or in reality by a small non-formal shadow group of oligarchs. Political decisions were made even not in the executive branch of government. Sessions of Government were formal events deprived from meaningful contents and discussions, to confirm the decisions taken in shadow.

However, the leadership of the ruling Republican Party of Armenia (RPA) and particularly Serzh Sargsyan decided to make constitutional amendments for transition to a parliamentary system of government. Officially it was explained as a desire to switch to a more democratic system, while, from the very beginning, this official version did not look convincing to many civil society actors and to many political forces.  Opinions were voiced that all those were planned for letting Serzh Sargsyan to become the country’s leader for the third and more times, moving from the position of president to the prime-minister’s position, formally staying loyal to the Constitution.

It should be noted that the initiative of the ruling government was odd also because the latter had always favoured semi-presidential system of government, and in the beginning of discussions on the conceptual framework of constitutional amendments, even Serzh Sargsyan stated that he personally was for not changing the system of government, while he started to promote it right after the adoption of the conceptual framework of constitutional amendments.

Before the initiation of constitutional amendments, official discussions widely perpetuated the idea that Armenia was not ready for parliamentary mode of governance as far as the political party system was unhealthy and not well established. The author of this article can recall himself participating in a TV debate, when representatives of the ruling coalition, along with the talk-show host, were arguing that the semi-presidential system was the most optimal and that parliamentary system could be catastrophic for Armenia. Shortly, a national referendum was conducted in 2015, and the opposition groups viewed its results as fabricated. By the way, at the referendum, many of them had joined their efforts for resisting the amendments in a campaign named “Votch!” (No!). They promoted the idea that the constitutional referendum was conducted for ensuring Serzh Sargsyan’s reproduction in the power. However, the amendments were adopted and the country, let it be formally, started to pass to a parliamentary system of government.  

By the way, the RPA made use of the formal transition period between the semi-presidential and parliamentary systems of government in contrast to parliamentary principles. When, as a result of the parliamentary elections of 2017, the RPA deputy chair Karen Karapetyan, who had in fact run the RPA electoral campaign almost personally, was elected as the country’s Prime Minister, still it was not decided who would be the PM after the President’s second term expired. Thus, making use of the opportunity provided by the transition period, the Republicans ignored one of elements of the parliamentary system when voting for a certain political party at parliamentary elections, voters in fact elect those figures who they desire to see in the positions of prime minister and of members of government.

It is worth mentioning that the constitutional amendments included provisions that were in no way related to the Armenian realities and were in general unique for parliamentary systems. One example is the provision on “stable parliamentary majority”. In practices worldwide, it is adopted in exceptional cases when in the face of deep fragmentation of political party system, only one vote by a Member of Parliament against its faction’s decision can distort the proportional balance between political forces, generate political crisis and lead to breaking up the coalition governments and to frequent snap elections. Meanwhile, such cases are very rare. One can recall San Marino and Italy where such problems emerged, and such a solution was a must. But in Armenia, there may not a problem like that: As many domestic and international observers repeatedly suggested, the RPA always managed to gain the majority of vote through various machinations and could form the government alone, without forming a coalition. The coalitions, formed in Armenia and periodically consisted of “Prosperous Armenia”, “Country of Law” and ARF “Dashnaktsutyun” parties, were artificial coalitions that were made up for propaganda purposes in order to demonstrate that there exists a large public consensus about Governments’ activities while it was not existent.

Briefly speaking, all evidence supported the statement that the transition to a parliamentary system of government was an artificial agenda. The fact that Serzh Sargsyan was the figure who was elected as Prime Minister in April 2018 came to confirm the assumption that the transition to a parliamentary system was done in order to de facto bypass the constitutional norm restricting the President to serve three consecutive terms and to extend Serzh Sargsyan’s rule for an indefinite period. By the way, it should be noted that the opposition used the parliamentary mandates of its small faction for organising an effective civic campaign against extension of Serzh Sargsyan’s rule. Nikol Pashinyan, the leader of “Yelq” (“Way out”) opposition faction in the National Assembly, along with his party fellows, effectively used the parliamentary stage for critical statements and for declaring the launch of a civic resistance campaign against Serzh Sargsyan. They effectively used also their parliamentary powers, for instance, when inviting a reception for thousands of citizens in the Parliament or when negotiating ways out of conflicts with the police. And finally, the civil disobedience campaign of 2018 led to the resignation of Serzh Sargsyan who had been elected as PM only few days ago. The parliamentary system of government allowed Nikol Pashinyan to become the Prime Minister without conducting new parliamentary elections and to form the Government that enjoyed popular trust.

Thus, Armenia got a chance to move toward building a real parliamentary democracy. But unless a parliament representing the will of people is formed, one cannot say that a full parliamentary system exists in Armenia. By the way, there is a widespread opinion in academia that parliamentary model of government is the system that fosters democratic development the most.

It should be noted that the new Government tends to take certain steps for de jure improving the system of parliamentary government: there were suggestions to reduce the threshold for entering the Parliament, to increase the minimal required number of political parties and alliances in the Parliament, to withdraw limitations for forming a coalition, to put in place a full, pure proportional system, to limit the Prime Minister’s powers, and so on. But all these encountered the resistance by many MPs from RPA representing the former ruling party, while these suggestions by Pashinyan’s team enjoyed popular support. This mere fact demonstrates that having snap elections and winning of healthy forces loyal to democratic values in those elections are an urgent issue.

We should underline that political parties and party systems in general, definitely play a crucial role for establishment of parliamentarism. In the period preceding the Velvet Revolution, the parties, mostly reminding of political clubs, had no tangible role in decision making processes. To us, even the ruling party was not the centre or source of decision making. Basically, there were some shadow groups of limited number, that possessed large resources and defined and made decisions according to their own interests. Many of those groups’ members were of course involved in the ruling party or other parties collaborating with it (RPA). However, formal political participation was provided only for giving a formal look to the decisions taken in shadow and for personally controlling the process. The Parliament was used for giving a civilised look to the already made decisions, for creating a democratic illusion. Apart from RPA, its coalition partners and other forces kept up with the boundaries of a game rules drawn for authoritarian system and, basically, they did not question them. Although small opposition factions periodically used the Parliament’s stage and their mandates for denouncing the authorities, for advocating for human rights, however, they were deprived of opportunity to compete with ruling parties in equal conditions and from resources necessary for full establishment.  

Today, when there is no more political monopoly and political parties have the chance to compete with one another in equal conditions, re-formatting of relatively healthy forces and parallel creation of new ideological parties with pro-democratic agenda are urgent issues of today.  To make sure that, as a result of revolution, a genuine parliamentary democracy is established in Armenia, it is also urgent that one-man-parties, people and groups involved in various illegal activities leave the political arena; that parties, at least the influential ones, have real members; that parties were linked to various groups of society and reflect the last’s interests; that equal conditions for all – from regular member to a party leader – to become a party leader were provided inside parties; and so forth. The parties should have equal access to expert resources for developing productive and in-depth programmes, rather than declarative and senseless ones. By the way, all of this is necessary despite what the Armenian system of government will be in the future – parliamentary or another.

It is also clear, that parliamentary democracy will get established in Armenia only when a transition from a personified system to a participatory system of collective responsibility will be ensured; when the change of country’s or of ruling party’s leader will not result in a threat to the democratic existence of the state.

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