The Mar 2, 2018 presidential election in Armenia will have no decisive effect on the politics in either the country or the region. The power balance formed as a result of the last parliamentary elections will hardly be changed. But this race will not be a formality as some analysts claim. It will be as symbolic as will be the figure of the fourth president.
It’s all about the constitutional reform adopted through a referendum on Dec 6, 2015. It was then that the ruling Republican Party of Armenia laid the basis of its future domestic policy and moved the center of power from the presidential palace to the parliament. That move preceded the final straight of the second presidential term of the Republican Party leader Serzh Sargsyan.
The constitutional reform has made Armenia a parliamentary republic, where true power is in the hands of the prime minister. On Mar 2, the president will no longer be elected by the people but by the parliament, where most of the members are Republicans. The new president is supposed to appoint the new prime minister and it will be a man from the force that won the last parliamentary elections, that is, the selfsame Republican Party.
The new president will have no influence on Armenia’s foreign and defense policies. The army will be subordinate to the government, that is, the defense minister, while the supreme commander will be the prime minister. As many as 66.2% of the Armenians voted for this system in 2015 (though the turnout was as low as 50.8%).
There are several candidates for presidency: Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian, Chairman of the Constitutional Court Gagik Harutyunyan, first defense minister Vazgen Manukyan, former president of Nagorno-Karabakh Arkady Ghukassyan and even first president of Armenia Levon Ter-Petrosyan. The common thing about all these people is their symbolic role in Armenia’s modern history and low weight in the country’s current political life. The parliament may well appear with other candidatures. One of them is known: veteran of the Nagorno-Karabakh war, member of the pro-Western Yelk bloc Artak Zeynalyan. The discussions of the candidacies are to be started next week. The leader of “constructive opposition” force Prosperous Armenia Gagik Tsarukyan has refused to run for a symbolic post. Perhaps, he should have done it. Each symbol has a special meaning that may materialize one day – as was the case in Georgia!
Georgia has always had an influence on Armenia’s political life. Figuratively speaking, Georgia is a gate for all political winds blowing from Europe. Georgia was the first in the region to switch to parliamentary regime. The author of the reform was Mikheil Saakashvili. But the problem was that later his United National Movement party lost parliamentary elections to Georgian Dream. As a result, the office of prime minister went not to Saakashvili but to oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili. The presidential post went to Georgy Margvelashvili. First regarded as a formal figure, Margvelashvili is now showing increasingly growing ambitions. Levon Ter-Petrosyan and Vazgen Manukyan are also very ambitious, so, they should be removed from the list of candidates. Besides, Ter-Petrosyan is too old for a political comeback.
So, there will be no ambitious people in the office of the next president of Armenia. Serzh Sargsyan has turned out to be more perspicacious that his Georgian colleagues. His party won the parliamentary elections that followed the constitutional reform. Now it has to pick up a loyal president. The question is who will nominate as new Prime Minister. When presenting the constitutional reform, Sargsyan promised that he would not seek the posts of Prime minister or speaker of parliament after the end of his presidency. That promise was a guarantee that the reform would be a success as many people in Armenia suspected Sargsyan of seeking to perpetuate his power.
Sargsyan’s second step after the constitutional reform was the victory of his part in the subsequent parliamentary elections. Now he is to take the third step – to elect the fourth (symbolic) president and to form a cabinet led by a strong prime minister. The Republicans want Sargsyan to be the one, but they should know that if they nominate Sargsyan, their rating will fall to the level of his current rating. In order to win next time, they need a new locomotive instead of the derailed Karen Karapetyan, who is still eager to continue as prime minister.
One more crucial problem is the prospects of Armenia’s foreign policy. The Republican Party of Armenia is a member of the European People’s Party and is committed to promote European legislative models in Armenia: their last law against domestic violence caused a scandal in Armenia as an initiative contradicting Armenian traditions. As president, Serzh Sargsyan has carried out a multi-vector foreign policy and enjoys good relations with both the West and Russia. What foreign policy will parliamentary Armenia have?
The Russians are not enthusiastic about Armenia’s move towards parliamentary regime as they perfectly know what means and technologies Armenian parties apply. Internal political flexibility implies flexibility in foreign policy, but critics warn that with an unsettled conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, such a switch can be dangerous.