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Yes or No? Why Armenian Democracy Would Benefit from Parliamentarism

Yes or No?

This is the basic question on which Armenian voters will be deciding when they go to the polls on December 6. Specifically, Armenians will decide between implementing a new parliamentary system of government (“yes”), or retaining the semi-presidential system they have maintained since independence from the USSR in 1991 (“no”).

Why a parliamentary system?

Adopting a parliamentary government would give the Armenian people a more direct say in the political process.  In this system, the president would become a figurehead, while the prime minister and the government (or the cabinet of ministers) would hold the reigns of power.  Such a political system would help to break the monopoly of the ruling Republican Party’s power and give greater voices to independent candidates and other parties.  Not only will more voices be represented, but also governing parties would be expected to enter into coalitions and to share power more often than they have under the current semi-presidential system.

Armenian government officials contend that the reform will promote greater pluralism and checks-and-balances in Armenian democracy.  It will also make the political process more stable.  Specifically, Armenian officials cite previous episodes since independence in which angry oppositionists sought to bring political change by mass mobilization and revolutionary protest.  Instead, officials argue, the new constitutional reform will move this frustration from the streets and into the National Assembly.  “This [reform] is being done for one reason: he who doesn’t create a basis for peaceful regime change ends up facing violent regime change,” said Davit Harutyunyan, the chief of government staff.  In this respect, the reform will allow Armenia to become more politically mature and move away from a political culture where elites and frustrated citizens seek to enact change by revolution rather than by the ballot box.

Constitutional reform in regional context

Regional politics also demonstrates the success of parliamentary systems.  Currently, Armenia’s northern neighbor, Georgia, has a parliamentary form of government.  This system was conceived in 2010 under the administration of the controversial Mikheil Saakashvili.  Unlike in the Armenian case, the constitutional reforms necessary for transforming the system were decided by parliament, not directly by the voters.  The system was implemented in 2013, immediately after the electoral victory of Saakashvili’s opponent, billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, and the Georgian Dream party.  Ivanishvili spent only one year in office before stepping aside and delegating the premiership to the then-31-year-old Interior Minister Irakli Garibashvili, who has since proved himself an effective and capable leader.

During Ivanishvili’s time in office, Saakashvili remained the president.  The Georgian presidential election of 2013 changed this and the Ivanishvili-backed candidate, Giorgi Margvelashvili, won the presidency.  Initially, there was some difficulty in defining the powers between the president and the prime minister in Georgia’s new parliamentary system.  Margvelashvili, who holds the presidential office in high esteem, is not content with being a mere political figurehead and has instead attempted to mediate between Georgia’s competing political factions as a means of bolstering his position.

Aside from this, the parliamentary system in Georgia has largely been effective, efficient, and responsive, especially under the leadership of Prime Minister Garibashvili.  Overall, it has had a positive impact on the Georgian political process.  Indeed, Armenia’s President, Serzh Sargsyan, may have been impressed by the Georgian system because his initiation of the constitutional reform discussion began in September 2013, a year after Ivanishvili and his party came to office.

While Georgia may provide a good example for Armenia in terms of a successful adoption of a parliamentary system, the idea has received much less enthusiastic support in Azerbaijan.  Eager to disparage anything happening in Armenia, the government-controlled Azerbaijani media has decisively criticized the reforms and have contended that they are merely a means for the ruling elite to retain power.  This is ironic coming from an authoritarian government where human rights are regularly violated and free speech is regularly repressed.

Constitutional reform in domestic context

The proposed move to transition from a presidential to a parliamentary system should also be viewed within the context of a greater series of institutional reforms implemented in Armenia under the presidency of Sargsyan.  Although Armenia has faced economic challenges due to the global financial crisis and the ongoing economic crisis in Russia, it has nonetheless made great strides toward reducing corruption and bureaucracy.  Armenian comedian Sergey Sargsyan (no relation to the president), a well-known critic of corruption in Armenia, noted these improvements in a recent interview.

The media environment is much freer today in Armenia than it was under the presidency of Robert Kocharyan, as illustrated by the presence of the satirical news program ArmComedy.  Additionally, the country boasts one of the healthiest and strongest civil societies in the entire former Soviet space.  Significant problems, such as unemployment and emigration, do remain.  However, the advances achieved over the past seven years are impressive and cannot be ignored.

The move toward a parliamentary republic would only further augment these advancements.  They represent Sargsyan actually giving away his authority, in a step akin to Mikhail Gorbachev willingly giving away his sweeping powers as the leader of Soviet Union during perestroika.  “The current constitutional reform is remarkable,” wrote political scientist Artak Galyan, “as President Serzh Sargsyan and the ruling Republican Party have initiated a process of constitutional change that could potentially put an end to their monopoly on power.”  The proposed reforms have been lauded by European observers, including the Venice Commission which praised it as a “further important step forward in the transition of Armenia towards democracy.”

However, not all Armenians see the benefits of adopting a parliamentary system.  A “No” movement has emerged, opposing any sort of transition to a parliamentary system.  There are indeed reasonable arguments to contest the adoption of the parliamentary system in Armenia.  However, the “No” campaign appeals more to the emotions of Armenian voters rather than strongly articulated arguments.  By casting the “yes” vote as a “vote for the establishment” and the “no” vote as a “vote for true democracy,” they are casting the referendum less as a debate on institutional reform and more as a referendum on the government’s legitimacy.

The “No” argument is compelling to a population that continues to experience corruption and unemployment and who do not see the immediate impact of Sargsyan’s reforms.  Often, “No” commercials prominently feature attractive young people, especially women, standing up against the reform.  People of other generations are represented as well, including elderly pensioners, giving the impression of a broad societal consensus in favor of the “No” movement.

“No” movement activists contend that the proposed reforms are merely a mechanism for Sargsyan to assume the new premiership and prolong his rule.  These objections echo those voiced in Georgia when that country first decided to switch to a parliamentary system in 2010.  Although the amendments passed overwhelmingly in parliament, critics maintained that then-Georgian President Saakashvili was using the reforms to prolong his rule.  However, unlike in the Armenian case, the concerns of Georgian critics were based on actual pronouncements by Saakashvili.  During the debate on the issue, Saakashvili explicitly announced that he would indeed seek the premiership if the reforms passed.  This is contrasted with Armenia’s Sargsyan who has stated repeatedly that he has no interest in the premiership and that he seeks to step down from political office after his second presidential term expires.

Some “No” activists go even further.  They see the issue as an opportunity to overthrow the government via mass mobilization, potentially looking to the earlier Rose and Orange Revolutions as romantic inspirations. They believe that a revolutionary overthrow of Sargsyan is the best means for achieving reform in Armenia, instead of a gradualist institutional approach.  Overall, while these groups are united on the object of overthrowing the Sargsyan government, none have clearly articulated what would follow.

Efforts have been made to de-emotionalize the issue and to present an even debate on both sides so that voters can make an informed and sound decision.  In this respect, political commentator Karen Kocharyan launched a television program in which representatives on both sides of the debate travel throughout Armenia to debate the issue.  The show, which premiered on November 13, is being broadcast by different Armenian TV networks for 20 days.

The outcome of the referendum remains far from clear.  A Gallup poll in July 2015 revealed that 46% of Armenians consider constitutional reforms necessary, while 26% do not and 28% are “unsure.”  A more recent poll by Gallup in November 2015 showed that 29.1% of the Armenians supported constitutional reforms, 26.1% opposed them, while 44% were “unsure.”

Looking ahead

If passed by the voters, Armenia’s proposed constitutional reforms would give them a more direct say in the democratic process.  It would have major long-term benefits for the development of a truly pluralistic system in Armenia.

Still, the responsiveness of individual politicians will remain a matter of debate and the lingering influence of the oligarchy will continue to pose a challenge to the political process.  In this respect, Armenia would do well to closely observe processes underway in neighboring Georgia.  The Garibashvili government has sought to move Georgia more toward the direction of a social democratic system, in contrast to the more pro-market policies of the previous government of Mikheil Saakashvili.  If true democracy is to be realized in Armenia, then Yerevan too may consider a similar approach.  In this case, Sargsyan’s proposed parliamentary reform would merely be a first step toward making the political process more directly accessible to the Armenian people.

Notably, some commentators contend that the new constitutional reforms will remove many of Armenia’s social benefits and guarantees to Armenian workers.  However, despite these assertions, the reformed constitution continues to guarantee social benefits and workers’ rights in Chapter 3 of its text.  Whether or not these guarantees are faithfully implemented is another matter.

It is true that the government has amended Article 58 of the constitution on the right to strike, adding that strikes may be restricted to protect “public interests or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.”  However, this should be understood in the context of the government’s fear of popular revolution rather than in a deliberate effort to stifle Armenian workers.  In general, the Sargsyan government is not pursuing the Armenian equivalent of the notorious Labor Code that Saakashvili introduced in Georgia in 2006, which directly attacked labor rights and openly violated the European Social Charter.

In fact, the text in the reform constitution guaranteeing social benefits may provide a blueprint for true social reform in Armenia.  It is clear that the social justice question cannot remain perpetually unanswered.  A social democratic model, with greater investment in social welfare and a balance between freedom and equality, would remedy this.  It would make Armenia into a genuine democracy, not beholden to an elite class but accessible to all Armenians.

At the same time, it is important to keep in mind that such reform can only occur gradually, through an evolutionary process that can be best expressed by the old Russian proverb, tishe yedesh, dalshe budesh (slow and steady wins the race).  Further, if reforms such as the proposed parliamentary system are successful in countries like Armenia and Georgia, then they can also positively influence other countries in the former Soviet region, including Russia.

That said, Armenian voters have a major decision to make on December 6.  They will chose between retaining the system of the past (“no”) and adopting a system of reform geared to the future (“yes”).  The choice is ultimately in the hands of the people, but a parliamentary system of government would definitely be a positive development for Armenian democracy.

The views expressed by the author are his own and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Armenite.


  1. Sabz Sabz Dec 4, 2015

    This article is based on multiple false premises, and is an obvious piece by pro-HHK forces. What’s more unfortunate is that this is not the first time people associated with this website have done everything in their power to ridicule and dismiss the opposition, including resorting to personal attacks on activists on Facebook.

    For one, elections in Armenia are not free and fair. In every election since independence, widespread fraud has been reported. In the case of this particular election, there are already reports of the government paying people to vote yes. The notion that Armenia would become more pluralistic and democratic under this system is technically false because Armenia has failed to hold on an honest and credible election, and suggests that people do not really have a choice. Not only that, but Armenia is not even a mature enough democracy to be able to take on such an important transition. The government still controls most of the media and I won’t even begin to mention the authority Russia has in the country to thwart any serious discussion that is not in theirs and consequently, the regime’s interest. There will always be a monopoly on power in Armenia because no oligarch in parliament is realistically going to give up any power, especially the people whom they regularly ridicule and degrade.

    The premise about Georgia and its success is also wrong. Ivanashvili may not be in power, but he still wields tremendous influence in his Georgian Dream Party and people who observe Georgia politically know that he is the one pulling the strings behind the scenes. Not only this, but you have failed to mention that Georgian authorities, much like the ones in Armenia, have abused and manipulated numerous government institutions to their favor to go after political opponents and change the constitution multiple times to do whatever suits them. Georgia is better off than Armenia economically and democratically, but it is by no means an ideal model for Armenia to aspire to be. Let’s also not forget that many of the forces that made Georgia a severely corrupt country have been removed since 2003, and this is something that Armenia has not only avoided, but has worsened by appointing killers into regional governorships among other things. It seems like the author thinks that switching governments, without doing all of the other necessary things to create an environment of pluralism, is automatically going to Armenia more democratic and therefore more prosperous. The author fails to mention that Georgia has made significant strides to include social and ethnic minorities in the process, something that we have not done. For example, Georgia extended discrimination to include gender and sexual orientation meanwhile in Armenia, we have people like Nazeni Hovhannesyan arguing against a bill that would guarantee equal rights for women because some dimwits were able to raise enough hysteria to convince the public that everyone would become transexuals. Whether you will admit it or not, Armenia is still a horrible place to be a gay person, an “azat” woman, a Western-minded individual, a non-member of the Armenian Apostolic Church, a Jehovah’s Witness, and a growing list of other cohort groups. You can’t create a pluralist society by pushing all sorts of people to the fringes for whatever reason. You also can’t create such a society when people like Sharmazanov openly encourage attacks on gay people, and regional officials in Gavar threatened to rape female activists who were arguing for more rights for women. Armenia’s government is full of tget, backwards simpletons who do not understand concepts such as pluralism and democracy– they only understand plunder. It’s almost a poor comparison to draw between an educated, respectable individual like Saakashvili to the garbage “ruling” our country.

    Another pathetic attempt to justify the “yes” campaign is by saying that Azerbaijan is against it. Enough of defining ourselves in the frame of everything they are not and vice-versa. They have a point: the government is trying desperately to hold on to power because, even as you admit in the article, they fear regime change. The same thing is happening over there, actually. If you take a step back, you’d be amazed to see how similar Armenia and Azerbaijan are in terms of social and political problems.

    • John John Dec 5, 2015

      Very well said, to be brutally honest, (minus the Baku sky-rises) even Azerbaijani urban planning is far advanced than Yerevan(there city center is amazing) leaving us behind in many social, political and urban spheres. I can understand the above comment is critical of Georgia as a model but using Georgia as a model is good start, we cant even begin to compare ourselves to the developing nations of Eastern Europe we are at least 100 years behind. More so, I had the impression this website was based on seek the truth, be honest and open, and question everything. It seems even this website aims to mollycoddle the reality of the Armenian nation. Don’t get me wrong other articles are great and VERY informative and even this article is good and although my comment goes of topic, I am simply replying and extending the above comment and agreeing with his opinion. I’m just having a go at the continuous romanticism of our culture in which this website perpetuates, yes lets find positive aspects of our culture. But the reality is simple, Armenians are falling behind in every-sphere and there really is no point in being positive or romanticizing the reality. The list is enormous, and our attitude is that we still do everything the BEST, WE DONT, we simply have no idea about anything, this attitude might work in the diaspora as contact and influence from outside make us successful(based on the persecuted complex) but within Armenia lets be honest where hopeless. Everything from, urban planning(just travel to any European nation to see why there economies run smoothly Tumanyan fucked Yerevan but we still praise him and build a statue of him, ask any urban planner that Yerevan economic situation is purely an offshoot of Yerevan’s urban planning), general architecture(who the fuck picked pink Tuff as a stone), music(I cant remember the last Armenian friend who listens to Armenian music, Turkish and Greek music is still a preference we cant even bring together a few traditional instruments and amplify them), constructions(why are we not utilizing Turkish construction companies when they construct most of Russia’s big buildings and bridge projects, Russia doesn’t even build there own buildings, the Soviet Union cant build), government policies, foreign policies, costumer service, business the list goes on, we have no idea and this attitude needs to be broken. If it starts from this website have a separate section critiquing our failures then be it. Maybe then seeking the truth and questioning everything will shed light on dark corners.

  2. Avetis Avetis Dec 5, 2015

    Another excellent, sober-minded analysis by Pietro Shakarian… no wonder Washington’s cyber-warriors are upset.

  3. Vahe Vahe Dec 6, 2015

    “…an educated, respectable individual like Saakashvili”…?!

    I’m not the most informed on these issues and consider myself a very casual political observer but isn’t Saakashvili the guy who on a whim decided to use military force on his own people in Abkhazia and South Ossetia? I remember seeing the guy eat his own tie on television… Anyway I enjoyed reading the article and the comments, but that line just made me laugh a bit.

    • Sabz Sabz Dec 8, 2015

      He is, but our leaders make him look like a brilliant philosopher. Some of the things Armenia’s MP’s have said have left me speechless.

      • Avery Avery Dec 8, 2015

        {an educated, respectable individual like Saakashvili to {….the garbage “ruling” our country.}
        Surely you jest:
        [“The fact that former President Mikhail Saakashvili, a former commander in chief … and his representatives call on Georgian military to renounce their citizenship and retire from service in the Armed Forces of Georgia and go to fight in Ukraine, because they will have a high payment there is a direct betrayal and call for national treason,” – announced PM Garibashvili during the final press conference of the year]
        [Georgia’s former President Mikhail Saakashvili, wanted by his country’s prosecutors for embezzlement, abuse of power and politically-motivated attacks, has been appointed governor of Ukraine’s Odessa region.]
        The Neocon agent is now openly working for the illegal Neo-Nazi Junta in Kiev in Neo-Nazi occupied Odessa: a Gauleiter.
        He is a traitor to the Georgian people and to the Republic of Georgia.
        An anti-Armenian, anti-Christian Neocon Turkophile filth.
        And of course a SorosaCadre who advocates for unfettered dissemination of Turkbaijani propaganda in Armenia would think a SorosaAgent to be allegedly “respectable”.
        {….the garbage “ruling” our country.}
        “garbage” ?
        Stop projecting already, Will Ya ?

  4. Giglagroff Giglagroff Dec 13, 2015

    Shame on the author! Why do you have even a degree in European studies if you can’t provide at least an objective analysis! Maybe it would be more useful to read a little more about the facts, instead of providing this magical interpretation of yours and bye the way you might need to present not just the praises of the Venice commission, but also the critical suggestions!!! Besides why is that so important what the European commission would say, or anyone who doesn’t give a shit about Armenia. Just because Georgia might be facing some positive changes, which does not necessarily come from institutional changes does that mean same thing will happen to Armenia? In other words your arguments are too weak. You cant expect same results just by adopting something that your neighbour did. We should stop compering us by the outside. It’s time to redefine our values as Armenians and face the truth.
    Institutional reforms won’t change the slave mentality that we have. We need a independent and sustainable economy that will save us from corruption, which will be a first step towards democracy.

  5. Zainab Zainab Feb 13, 2016

    It’s certainly a major deaeft for the Weekly Standard . Did a month go by the last several years for it without some agitprop for the Saak? I think it’s an initial victory for Russia to the extent Saak and friends ran such a relentlessly anti-Russian campaign and turned it into a referendum on same. Voters didn’t go along. Voters also generally turn out leaders that preside over military debacles.And Georgian voters may be showing they truly don’t want to be anyone’s puppet. But the real crunch is now Abkhazia and S. Ossetia.As long as Saak was in power, it was easy for Moscow to ignore Tblisi. Now? The Christian Ossetes are a pro- Russian constituency. (I think the Abkhaz might be same). New problem for Moscow . So you’re right, maybe they’ll miss the goofy Saak someday.

  6. Jeanne Jeanne Nov 15, 2018

    Learning a ton from these neat artleics.

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