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Armenia faces key referendum on boosting parliament´s powers

Agence France Presse -- English
October 14, 2005 Friday 3:32 AM GMT

Armenia faces key referendum on boosting parliament's powers

by Mariam Kharutyunyan

YEREVAN

Armenia will hold a referendum on November 27 on constitutional
changes that would strengthen the Caucasus nation's parliament, but
which have failed to win round opponents of President Robert
Kocharian.

Reforming the constitution has moved up the agenda of this ex-Soviet
Caucasus republic since a 2003 referendum failed to gain the required
number of votes to endorse reforms, leading the 46-nation Council of
Europe, a democracy-promoting body, to threaten symbolic sanctions.

"Fulfilling this obligation is important for our country," analyst
Alexander Iskandaryan said. "The existing constitution, which was
accepted in 1995, is now obsolete and needs to be amended for the
country's political development. Otherwise we will stand still." 

For the reforms to be approved, at least half of those who vote must
give their approval and the "yes" votes must equal at least a third
of eligible voters.

The package, which was approved by parliament on September 28, would
limit the president's powers, boost the role of parliament and the
cabinet and would also strengthen the independence of the judiciary.
It also aims to strengthen human rights protection.

Under the reformed constitution, "parliament would at any time be
able to vote no confidence in the government, ordinary citizens could
address the constitutional court, and parliament would appoint a
human rights ombudsman," parliament speaker Tigran Torosyan said.

"The parliament is becoming the strongest branch, which is natural
for countries seeking major reforms," he said.

Kocharian has resoundingly endorsed the reform package.

"This is undoubtedly a high quality document," he said earlier.

But this view is not unanimously shared.

>From February 2004 until recently the opposition had boycotted
parliament, angered at what it saw as abuses by Kocharian. It only
returned at the urging of the Council of Europe, which has been
involved in drafting the reform package.

The opposition declined to vote on the reforms, objecting that the
president would still have the right to dissolve parliament if it
blocked government-backed legislation over a two-month period.

The opposition also objects that the constitution leaves in place the
president's immunity from prosecution, both during and after his term
in office.

"The president should know he will answer for violations of the law,
both during his rule and afterwards," said Viktor Dallakyan, a leader
of the Justice opposition bloc.

Following popular uprisings in three other ex-Soviet republics --
Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan -- the opposition sees in the
referendum a chance to boost its standing and push out Kocharian's
leadership, Dallakyan said.

"If this project does not go through, it will be the authorities'
political death," Dallakyan said.

However analysts doubt that the opposition can really win mass
support.

"It may be that the opposition will not let this chance pass and will
destabilise the situation, but it will not be able to manage a
revolution... there is no basis for it in the country and the
opposition lacks the forces to do it," Iskandaryan said.

Baku residents questioned by AFP had mixed views, but underlined
their dissatisfaction with the present situation.

"I do not yet know what changes there are, but I will vote for it
because European experts have worked on it. It can't be worse than
the present constitution," Mkhitar, a 60-year-old street vendor, told
AFP.

Arus Mnatsakanyan, a 46-year-old mother of three, said she doubted
the changes would have much effect.

"It is not what is written in the law that matters, it's how it is
implemented," she said.

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