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Constitutional Referendum Impasse to Be Overcome through New Legislative Changes 

On February 6, 2020, the Parliament of Armenia adopted a decision to hand over the decision of changes to a specific provision of the 2015 Constitution of Armenia to a popular referendum, even though it was empowered to motion for constitutional amendments itself. The referendum was planned for April 5, 2020 and was put off by the state of exception declared due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, the Parliament is seeking ways to bring the decision-making over changing the Constitution’s “bottleneck” in relation to the Constitutional Court back in its hands.

The specific provision, Article 213, is a transitional provision related to changes of the Constitutional Court of Armenia. While the unpopular “overhaul” of the Constitution in 2015, held under a disguise of fair and transparent “referendum” envisaged changes for the terms of the Constitutional Court’s judges and Chairman (former Constitution allowed for almost lifetime terms of judges), the transitional provisions allowed to overpass the new Constitution’s requirements for a 6-year term for Chairmanship and 12-year tenure for judges and enacted the provision after April 9, 2018. These provisions allowed for Hrayr Tovmasyan, author of the Constitutional changes, and other judges, take office until they would be 65 years old, effectively until 2037 in the case of Tovmasyan and various years for the other judges. As a former Minister of Justice, MP and politician, Tovmasyan is known to be the mastermind of the 2015 Constitution and an ally to the ousted regime of Armenia. His tenure, as well as those of other Constitutional Court judges appointed before 2018, are deemed to be a bottleneck in the reform processes promised after the Velvet Revolution.

The Referendum planned for April 5, was in effect aimed at canceling Article 213 of the new Constitution of Armenia and depriving then acting judges and Court Chairman their almost life-time tenure. However, the law on State of Exception or Military State bans holding elections, referenda and such political events. The referendum put off due to the state of exception is to be rescheduled immediately after the state of exception is declared over.

The government and the parliament, however, do not wish to bring the issue back to a referendum, and as Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has recently stated, there are no prospects for holding a referendum under the coronavirus pandemic circumstances within at least a year. At the same time, there are no regulations related to canceling an announced referendum.

MP of “My Step” Vahagn Hovakimyan has brought a draft package to the floor on changing the constitutional law on Referendum and affiliated regulations. They will create a legal basis for calling off the referendum declared before the State of Exception. By cancelling the referendum, the Parliament can resume deliberations on the constitutional amendments and vote for amendments on its own, without resorting to popular vote.

“Bright Armenia” fraction declared the move as anti-constitutional and announced they would not vote. “Prosperous Armenia” party requested a 20-minute adjournment to discuss the issue within the fraction and eventually voted against the proposed amendments. The draft amendments to the Law on Referendum and other regulations was eventually passed by 83 votes in favor and 16 against in a first hearing.