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Improving democracy through participation in constitution-making

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Assembly room inside City Hall in Hamburg, Germany.

In the last 40 years, roughly 119 countries have rewritten or established new constitutions. But does writing and implementing a new constitution improve a country’s levels of democracy? This is the question a team of professors asked and analyzed for their new book: Constituents before Assembly: Participation, Deliberation, and Representation in the Crafting of New Constitutions.

The findings, the professors say, are surprising. Professor Todd Eisenstadt from the School of Public Affairs, Professor Carl LeVan from the School of International Service; and Professor Tofigh Maboudi, SPA/PhD ’16, from Loyola University Chicago conclude in their book that countries that broadly included their constituents early in the convening and drafting process are the ones that see higher levels of democracy following the ratification of a new constitution. This finding rejects the common belief that democracy stems from the content of constitutions rather than who helps create constitutions.

“The more participatory, the more transparent, and the more inclusive the process is, the more likely the constitution will have a lasting, positive effect on democracy,” says LeVan. “We were astonished to find that, statistically, the result held whether we looked at democracy levels three years, five years, or even 10 years after the new constitution was established. It really is a consistent, lasting effect on democracy.”

Together, Eisenstadt, LeVan, and Maboudi created a data set that statistically represented how 138 constitutions impacted their respective country’s democracy from 1974 through 2011. They looked closely at the lifespan of a new constitution, dividing it into three phrases: drafting, debating, and ratifying. They found that having open participation and debate, particularly in the drafting phase, leads to a more democratic nation.

However, in addition to providing insight on what factors increase democracy during this process, Constituents before Assembly also takes into account the political landscapes and situations surrounding new constitutions.

“The goal of creating a new constitution is most decidedly not to improve democracy,” says Eisenstadt. “Often times, countries call for the creation of a new constitution to get out of otherwise insurmountable political crises and, sometimes, to present the illusion of a democracy, even though there is no intent to open up an authoritarian political system.”

The professors conducted field research in Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East to glean real-world insight to their findings. Eisenstadt cites Venezuela—a country in which he conducted field research and which is experiencing political upheaval, falling oil prices, and declining regime control—as an example of a country currently facing constitutional crisis. As the country moves to establish a new constitution, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro recently found himself under international criticism for establishing a new constituent assembly, a group of representatives tasked with drafting or adopting a constitution that favors his leadership rather than adequately represents the citizens of the country.

“I think that case points to the dynamic of the book, which is that authoritarian leaders make new constitutions when they have no other choice,” says Eisenstadt.

As more countries like Venezuela move to establish new constitutions, Maboudi is hopeful that the Constituents before Assembly could have a positive impact on improving democracy throughout the world. He’d like to see think tanks and non-government organizations push to increase broad constituent participation in the drafting phrase rather than in the final ratification phase, as is typically done.

“Constitutions aren’t written in a vacuum. There’s no universal formula, but pure participation and consensus is important,” says Maboudi.


Want to learn more about Constituents before Assembly? Join Eisenstadt, LeVan,  Maboudi, and distinguished guest speakers on Thursday, September 28 for a book launch and discussion.