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date: 10 April 2021

Revolutions and Constitutional Crisislocked

  • Johannes VüllersJohannes VüllersUniversity of Duisburg-Essen

Summary

Revolutionary actions and constitutional crises are closely linked. However, research mainly looks at the two phenomena as distinct from each other. While studies on revolutionary actions are interested in the agency and the impact of the actions on the country’s institutions, legal research focuses on the constitution itself. The separation of the two strands leads to a limited understanding of their dynamics and complexity. What do we know about the relationship between revolutionary actions and constitutional crisis, and vice versa? The first question is how revolutionary actions trigger constitutional crisis, defined as a moment in which decision makers are unwilling or unable to manage the societal conflicts within the confinement of the constitutionally provided boundaries. Different types of revolutionary behavior—such as elite-led military coups, civil wars, and nonviolent resistance movements—trigger constitutional crises in many cases. They can lead to a new constitution with diverse implications for the political system. Whether the opposition or the old regime prevails in the constitutional crisis is a question of the power resources of both parties to the conflict. In some cases, the opposition movements succeed in making the political system more democratic. However, there are also cases where the constitutional crisis ultimately leads to more power for the ruling class.

The relationship also works vice versa: a constitutional crisis can trigger revolutionary actions. Constitutional coups, and processes of democratic backsliding and constitutional rot, can trigger violent and nonviolent revolutionary actions. Political elites can try to change constitutional norms for their own benefit, such as extending the presidential term of office. This often leads to a storm of public protest and can become a real threat to the regime’s survival. A constitution can enter a crisis phase for a long time if it no longer serves the needs of parts of society. The injustices that thus arise within society can be a strong motive for revolutions. The combination of agency and constitutional processes is a promising avenue for future research that could help analyze the complex relationship between constitutional crises and revolutionary actions. In addition to innovative theoretical approaches, new empirical data is needed to examine the process of constitutional negotiation in more detail.

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