As Armenia gears up for its parliamentary election on 2 April, the deeper significance of this particular contest has been somewhat obscured by the usual, natural, focus on the competition between parties and confrontation between candidates. In fact, this election heralds a structural transformation in Armenian politics, from a semi-presidential system to a parliamentary form of government. Matched by a serious transition of political elites, with an ascendant younger elite forcing out the ‘old guard’ from many senior positions, this election has significant implications for the future development of the country itself.
This prelude to the new era began well before the campaign. After the Armenian government rushed through a rather hasty set of constitutional amendments in a successful referendum in December 2015, the country embarked on a ‘crash course’ in preparing for the transition to a parliamentary system. Under the terms of the revised constitution, the country was to elect a new parliament in April 2017, and would then shift to full parliamentary government by 2018, at which time the president would complete his final, second term. The office of the presidency would then be seriously downgraded, to a largely symbolic and ceremonial position elected by an American-style ‘electoral college’ comprised of members of parliament, regional governors and a few other select officials. The real power would move to the post of prime minister, who would now be elected by parliament itself.
Yet there was insufficient preparation for that constitutional referendum, as the government did little to adequately educate or inform voters of the scale and scope of its planned switch to a parliamentary government. And despite a “declaration of urgency” by the government in order abruptly devise and hurriedly justify the move, no plausible explanation was ever really provided for why a parliamentary government would be the best solution for the Armenia’s serious deficiencies and shortcomings in democratic and economic reform. In fact, judging by the outgoing Armenian parliament’s glaring failure to exercise its most basic responsibilities of oversight and prerogatives of legislative governance, there was little advanced by way of evidence to show that the new system would address the parliament’s fundamental institutional weakness.
Despite valid doubts over both the urgency and efficacy of a move to a parliamentary system, there are two demonstrable advantages of this change for Armenia. The first advantage is rooted in a longer-term gain, whereby any attempt further down the line to revert to a presidential form of government will now be particularly difficult. In the case of post-Soviet Armenia, which has been governed by only three presidents, with each marked by a pattern of increasingly authoritarian records of rule, this is particularly important as a deterrent to the plague of ‘strongman’ rule over ’statesman’ leadership.
But it is the second advantage that offers a more immediate and much more practical dividend for democratisation. Based on a new rule-set of compromise, concession and coalition politics, Armenia’s new parliamentary system will not only foster, but may actually force, the emergence of more pluralistic political parties. And, given this benefit, the newly elected parliament will emerge as more potent and politically powerful than any previous legislative body in recent Armenian political history. This too is a novelty for Armenia, as it promises to incentivise the development of a more mature, and ‘self-aware’, parliament which can fulfil expectations of an institutional power centre exercising its own inherent prerogatives of democratic oversight and legislative initiative.
The Risk of Presidential Ambition
Despite the advantages that Armenia’s political transition may provide, there is a looming danger that threatens to erase any such gains. The risk stems from a scenario whereby the sitting president simply decides to conclude his final term by assuming the position of prime minister itself, which, under the terms of the constitutional changes, will become both the head of state and commander-in-chief of the armed forces. Under such a role reversal, President Serzh Sarkisian would simply continue as the official head of state by moving from president to prime minister.
However, such a move would seriously undermine the integrity of democratic reform. Further, such a development would also only magnify the government’s already apparent lack of legitimacy and maximise the serious erosion of public trust and confidence in the state and its institutions. That risk is increasingly becoming ever more real, however: the president has recently distanced himself from previous public statements pledging to not seek to become prime minister.
More recently, President Sarkisian has increasingly invoked issues of security and stability, referring to the April 2016 fighting over the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, in an apparent bid to shape the political narrative as one where the country is in crisis and so should retain him as leader. While such a stress on security and stability serves the incumbent government in a general election campaign, the likelihood of renewed hostilities over Nagorno-Karabakh does represent an authentic crisis, and may only tempt the president and his party loyalists of the need to retain him as the next prime minister or head of state.
Wider Policy Implications
While the risk of the president remaining in power is a setback to democratisation, there are also wider policy implications for the future of reform in Armenia. And although the outcome of the election itself is widely expected to offer no real surprise – the ruling Republican Party is likely to win a majority of seats – there are concerns over the post-election situation.
Most notably, once this election is over, and even assuming the re-election of the incumbents, the lingering problems and looming challenges plaguing the country are only mounting. From a sharp economic downturn to a crisis in relations with traditional ally Russia, in addition to a threat of war over Nagorno-Karabakh, the next Armenian government will face a set of disparate and daunting crises. And, judging by an election campaign that has been marked by a poverty of ideas and a paucity of policy alternatives, it remains far from certain exactly how a new Armenian parliamentary government will fare in managing such a complex threat environment.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.