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In Armenia, a Constitutional Power Grab Backfires

In Armenia, a Constitutional Power Grab Backfires

Framed as a path to stability, Serzh Sargsyan’s attempt to use a new parliamentary system to retain power has perpetuated a pattern of recurring crisis in Armenian politics.

Armenia’s former president and just appointed prime minister, Serzh Sargsyan, resigned Monday after a 10-day campaign of nationwide protest and civil disobedience. Protests began as soon as Sargsyan announced 11 April that he would, after previously stating otherwise, seek the ruling Republican Party’s nomination to the newly created post of prime minister.

By doing so, he laid to rest any lingering doubt about the reasons for Armenia’s switch to a parliamentary system. Introduced through a contested constitutional referendum in December 2015, the new system came online just as Sargsyan’s second, and by law final, presidential term ended. Executive powers now lie with the prime minister, and the president is relegated to a largely ceremonial role.

The roots of the crisis lie in the manner of Armenia’s exit from Soviet rule. Due to the fracturing of the political elite in 1988–90, Armenia did not become independent with a strong executive-oriented political party intact. Small coalitions meant that even in fraudulent elections, successive Armenian presidents have only been able to win by the tightest of margins. Presidential elections in Armenia have always been close-run affairs characterized by second-round voting, or post-electoral protests against narrow incumbent wins.

In 1996, Levon Ter-Petrosyan was declared the winner with 51.8% over Vazgen Manukyan’s 41.3%. His successor Robert Kocharyan was forced to a second-round vote in both 1998 and 2003, winning just 39% and 49.5% in the first rounds respectively. In 2008, Sargsyan secured election with only 52.8%; in 2013, this lifted to 58%. These are not the margins of secure autocrats.

Presidential elections and recurring crisis

Presidential elections have consequently also been repeated moments of crisis in Armenian politics. In 1996, 59 people were injured as the army dispersed crowds protesting Ter-Petrosyan’s re-election. In April 2004, protestors called for a referendum of confidence in Kocharyan; they were violently dispersed and opposition parties and media offices raided. In 2008, 10 people were killed as protestors were forcefully dispersed in Yerevan in the aftermath of Sargsyan’s narrow win. Since then political impunity, economic stagnation, depopulation and the shock of renewed conflict with Azerbaijan in April 2016 further diminished his legitimacy.

Armenia’s new parliamentary system offered a solution to this problem. It eliminated direct presidential elections focused on single individuals, which had consolidated protest and substantial votes for opposition candidates. It sidestepped a succession crisis, and gave the veneer of a new parliamentary mandate to the Republican Party. The party comfortably won a parliamentary election in April 2017.

But Sargsyan’s nomination as the Republican Party’s candidate to fill the post of prime minister proved a disastrous underestimation of public discontent. Crafting disciplined methods of civil disobedience, and scrupulously avoiding geopolitical framing as ‘colour revolutions’, mass protests have become a staple of Armenian politics in recent years. Under the charismatic but disciplined leadership of Nikol Pashinyan – a former newspaper editor and a leader of the Yelk (‘Way Out’) bloc that forms the parliamentary opposition, as well as a former associate of Levon Ter-Petrosyan – protests beginning on 12 April quickly became national in scale. Non-violent actions included mass sit-ins, roadblocks and the banging of pots and pans.

There were fears of a crackdown after a poorly staged show of negotiation between Sargsyan and Pashinyan on 22 April, amid reports of violence against protestors and journalists in some areas. But not even the arrest of Pashinyanand other protest leaders stemmed the tide of protest. A day later Sargsyan resigned, eschewing violence one day before the annual national commemoration of lives lost to genocide in the 20th century.

It is an extraordinary moment and opposition jubilation is understandable. There is no little irony that having failed to secure either a power grab or prevent political crisis, the imposition of a new parliamentary system has in fact generated a real opening for political renewal. But whether that happens is another matter.

Systemic problems

The movement of the last 10 days, still without definitive name, has been focused on removing one man. But it is the system that Sargsyan both inherited and embellished that is the real target. He may be the second Armenian president to resign from office, but none have been removed by constitutional means at the ballot box. Vote buying, ‘smart fraud’ and ruling party pressure on public sector workers have marred recent polls.

In a country of three million, the Yelk parliamentary bloc, which includes protest leader Pashinyan’s Civil Contract party, achieved only 122,065 votes, or 7.8% of the vote, at the parliamentary election in April 2017. That will surely change in snap elections. But Armenia’s new constitution stipulates 54% of the vote  as the winning threshold for a ‘stable parliamentary majority’. If no party crosses this threshold coalitions may be formed, but of no more than two parties or blocs.

This suggests that there will be challenging coalition politics of a kind Armenia has not seen before ahead. Pashinyan has done well to avoid divisive rhetoric on the protest square. This is a tradition that must continue.

The crisis also highlights the contradictions between domestic outcomes and Armenia’s geopolitical predicament as a state in a long-term militarized rivalry. There is no geopolitical explanation, or ‘hidden hand’, to the events in Armenia. Yet there are repercussions. Last week’s popular revolt, openly admired by Russian oppositionist Alexey Navalny, debunks once and for all readings of Armenia as a submissive Russian ‘client state’. For entrenched autocrats among Armenia’s nominal allies in the Russian-led Eurasian Union, it poses unsettling questions about the country’s place in Eurasia’s competitive bloc politics.

Never has the holy grail of Armenian geopolitics – the complementarity of normative concerns and security guarantees – seemed so distant. Brokering legitimacy at home and finessing Armenia’s diverse relations abroad will require great skill, moderation and consensualism. But advocates of constitutional rule in Armenia now have a historic opportunity.

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