YEREVAN — Campaigning officially began in Armenia on Monday for a referendum on constitutional changes which will be held on April 5th.
The draft amendments to the Armenian constitution call for the dismissal of seven of the nine members of the Constitutional Court accused by Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan of being linked to the country’s “corrupt former regime.”
The Armenian parliament controlled by Pashinyan’s My Step bloc decided on February 6 to put them on a referendum after months of tensions with the court and its chairman, Hrayr Tovmasyan, in particular. Tovmasyan has resisted strong government pressure to resign.
My Step has already set up a campaign headquarters for a Yes vote in the referendum scheduled for April 5. To pass, the amendments drafted by the ruling bloc have to be backed by a majority of referendum participants making up at least one-quarter of Armenia’s 2.57 million or so eligible voters.
Vice President of the National Assembly, Alen Simonyan, insisted at the weekend that the proposed constitutional changes are part of broader government efforts to strengthen judicial independence in Armenia.
“We want to have the kind of judicial system that may say No to us on some issues but will be independent,” Simonyan told RFE/RL’s Armenian service. “This judicial system has already proved that it’s not independent.”
Lawyers to Lead ‘No’ Campaign
More than 60 lawyers critical of the Armenian government have joined forces to campaign for a “no” vote in the upcoming referendum on a controversial government proposal to oust most members of the country’s Constitutional Court.
The Central Election Commission (CEC) on Tuesday registered them as the sole No side in the unfolding referendum campaign. The official status entitles them to free airtime on state television.
Leading opposition parties have questioned the legality of the proposed amendments, saying that they run counter to other articles of the Armenian constitution. But none of those parties has decided to officially campaign against their enactment.
The lawyers who have set up the official No camp have denounced the amendments as unconstitutional. One of their representatives, Ruben Melikyan, insisted on Tuesday that their involvement in the referendum campaign will not help to legitimize the process.
“In terms of our national interests, we will suffer much greater damage and losses if not only the constitutionality but also the fairness of this process is called into question,” Melikyan told reporters. “We must enable people, who have something to say, to present their message and allow those people, who want to monitor [the referendum,] to take that opportunity.”
Melikyan, who has served as a deputy justice minister in the past, also said that the lawyers are not afraid of being branded agents of the former regime by Pashinyan’s team. “We do not support or campaign against anyone,” he said. “This is a fight for the Republic of Armenia.”
While saying that the No campaign will seek to avoid “political” statements, Melikyan did not exclude that it will give opposition forces a platform to continue denouncing the government bid to replace the high court judges.“Yes, we may enable various political forces to make use of our free airtime,” he said.