Hundreds of people flooded the streets in Armenia to protest the regime of Serzh Sargsyan and his party. Armenians have been protesting the decision of then President Sargsyan to move Armenian politics from a presidential system to a parliamentary one. Sargsyan had already served two five-year terms, making him ineligible to be re-elected for at least five years, as president.
The March of Dictators
Instead of loosening his grip on power, Sargysan changed the constitution of Armenia, elevating the prime minister, and having the president play a diminished role. While within the framework of the law, this move goes against the principles of democracy and shows the extent of his power. However, this attempt to consolidate power sparked the protests in Armenia and has led to the resignation of Sargsyan.
The importance of these results must not be underestimated. These developments in Armenia buck a global trend. Freedom House report that power in many democracies has become more centralised and autocratic. Most of these changes have been ‘legal’. Pertinent examples of such legal actions were those taken by the ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) in Poland as well as with Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey. By lowering the mandatory retirement age for judges PiS was acting, prima facie, legal. The outrage in Europe was caused by the result which was the forced retirement of almost all judges and the resulting appointment, by the government, of new judges.
Different Types of Justice
The actions taken by PiS in Poland were far from unique, as policy decisions taken by Hungary inspired them. It too had tried to lower the retirement age of judges and thereby forcing the retirement of 274 judges. These results are, however, very much in conflict with the principles of Western democratic values. In Turkey Erdogan and the AKP increased the power of the president, a move opposite to that of Armenia but with the same goal in mind. Though a military coup attempt in 2016 gave Erdogan an excuse to incarcerate political opponents, he has extended many of the president’s powers through a referendum.
There were accusations that the government suppressed voters who were against the new powers and that unstamped ballots were counted. Erdogan received the majority of votes approving for his extra powers, but only just. These powers formed the basis of what is now an authoritarian system, with Erdogan at its head. It was not just an abuse of the democratic system, but also of the courts has been used to generate more powers for dictators
Putin’s Power Play
In Russia, the most serious opposition for Putin in elections is Alexei Navalny. He runs on the anti-corruption campaign and is well liked. In 2017 Navalny was barred from running as a candidate in the presidential election due to a previous conviction for fraud. One may argue that a candidate opposing corruption whilst being convicted of fraud is very unbelievable. However, supporters of Navalny believe these claims were false and only trumped up as a way to bar him from running.
It is legal to accuse and prosecute a political leader for fraud, and when true the politician should be fined or jailed. In this case, however, justice was not the main aim; rather preventing real competition for Putin. This is most visible in the harshness of banning someone from running as a candidate. Compare this to Italy where Berlusconi is allowed to hold a public office again. He was convicted of tax fraud and expelled from parliament in 2013. After having served a year of community and service the court found him eligible to hold public office again due to his ‘good behaviour’.
A Trend Broken
The previous examples are not exhaustive, more countries have lost liberty via technically legal routes. The trend of nations losing their freedom through law is much more threatening than Islamic State or other terrorist organisations. With the forced resignation of the prime minister, Armenia seems to be breaking the trend of countries becoming less free. The people have put a stop to the country becoming a dictatorship through legal means.