Constitutional crisis

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search

In political science, a constitutional crisis is a problem or conflict in the function of a government that the political constitution or other fundamental governing law is perceived to be unable to resolve. There are several variations to this definition. For instance, one describes it as the crisis that arises out of the failure, or at least a strong risk of failure, of a constitution to perform its central functions.[1] The crisis may arise from a variety of possible causes. For example, a government may want to pass a law contrary to its constitution; the constitution may fail to provide a clear answer for a specific situation; the constitution may be clear but it may be politically infeasible to follow it; the government institutions themselves may falter or fail to live up to what the law prescribes them to be; or officials in the government may justify avoiding dealing with a serious problem based on narrow interpretations of the law.[2][3] Specific examples include the South African Coloured vote constitutional crisis in the 1950s, the secession of the southern U.S. states in 1860 and 1861, the controversial dismissal of the Australian Federal government in 1975 and the 2007 Ukrainian crisis.

Constitutional crises may arise from conflicts between different branches of government, conflicts between central and local governments, or simply conflicts among various factions within society. In the course of government, the crisis results when one or more of the parties to a political dispute willfully chooses to violate a law of the constitution; or to flout an unwritten constitutional convention; or to dispute the correct, legal interpretation of the violated constitutional law or of the flouted political custom. This was demonstrated by the so-called XYZ Affair, which involved the bribery of French officials by a contingent of American commissioners who were sent to preserve peace between France and the United States.[4] The incident was published in the American press and created a foreign policy crisis, which precipitated the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts. Opposition to these acts in the form of the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions cited that they violated freedom of speech and exhorted states to refuse their enforcement since they violated the Constitution.[4]

Moreover, if the crisis arises because the constitution is legally ambiguous, the ultimate resolution usually establishes the legal precedent to resolve future crises of constitutional administration. Such was the case in the United States presidential succession of John Tyler, which established that a successor to the presidency assumes the office without any limitation.

Politically, a constitutional crisis can lead to administrative paralysis and eventual collapse of the government, the loss of political legitimacy, or to civil war. A constitutional crisis is distinct from a rebellion, which occurs when political factions outside a government challenge the government's sovereignty, as in a coup d'état or a revolution led by the military or by civilians.


Democratic Republic of the Congo[edit]

Patrice Lumumba


  • Egypt experienced a constitutional crisis when President Mubarak was removed and the country was left without a president until President Morsi was elected and then again when Morsi was arrested until President Al-Sisi took office.[6][7]


  • A constitutional crisis occurred in Malawi in 2012 with regard to the succession of Bingu wa Mutharika. The President and Vice-President were from different parties which led to deliberations over who the rightful successor would be and the constitutional crisis. Vice-President Joyce Banda eventually succeeded wa Mutharika.

Republic of The Gambia[edit]


South Africa[edit]

  • The Coloured vote constitutional crisis (1951–55): The National Party government disputed a court decision overturning its act to disenfranchise Coloured voters. Its attempt to reverse the decision in an ad hoc court was also overturned, after which the party used reforms to the Senate to pass the measure legally.





  • Supreme Court Chief Justice Sajjad Ali Shah clashed repeatedly with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in late 1997, accusing him of undermining the court's independence. After Ali Shah suspended a constitutional amendment that prevented dismissal of the prime minister, Sharif ordered President Farooq Leghari to appoint a new chief justice. When Leghari refused, Sharif considered impeaching him, but backed down after a warning from the armed forces. Faced with a choice of accepting Sharif's demands or dismissing him, Leghari resigned. Ali Shah resigned shortly afterward, establishing Sharif's dominance.


  • In March 2006, 60 seats of the National Assembly of Thailand could not be elected, and Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra refused to resign. The judicial system did not lead up to Supreme Court as the top arbitrator so there were inconsistent rulings from the civil, criminal, administrative, and constitutional Courts.[clarification needed]

Sri Lanka[edit]

  • On the 26th of October 2018, President Maithripala Sirisena appointed former President Mahinda Rajapaksa as Prime Minister and dismissed incumbent Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. Ranil Wickremesing refused to accept the dismissal while stating that it was unconstitutional and undemocratic.





John of England signs Magna Carta. Illustration from Cassell's History of England (1902)



  • The Brittany Affair of 1765: The king's court in Brittany forbade collection of taxes to which the provincial Estates did not consent. After King Louis XV annulled the court's decree, most of its members resigned. The chief prosecutor, Louis-René de Caradeuc de La Chalotais, was accused of writing letters denouncing the king's action and charged with treason. A court convened to try La Chalotais reached no conclusion due to questions of jurisdiction and the weakness of the evidence. The king then transferred the case to his own council, further inflaming fears of absolutism to the point that he was obligated to release La Chalotais and yield to the provincial authorities.
  • The 16 May 1877 crisis: President Patrice de Mac-Mahon dismissed Prime Minister Jules Simon and named Albert de Broglie to replace him. The National Assembly refused to recognize the new government and a crisis, which ended with the dissolution of the Assembly and new elections, ensued.


  • In the Weimar Republic, for several years the country was governed with the help of enabling acts and emergency decrees. The crisis became dramatic in 1932, when the Nazi Party and Communist Party of Germany had together a majority in the parliament. Any government, installed by the Reich President, was likely to be dismissed by the parliament. The crisis ended in a Nazi and conservative coalition government and then Nazi dictatorship. The Weimar Constitution was not abolished, but weakened to the point of irrelevance.
  • In 1962 Spiegel affair, Franz Josef Strauss, federal minister of defense, tried to repress media freedom with governmental resources and accused Spiegel employees of treason after an article of Spiegel had exposed the incompetence of German ministry of defense confronting the Soviet Union. In 1966, Federal Constitutional Court of Germany issued a groundbreaking ruling concerning freedom of the press. The incident caused the first mass demonstrations and public protests and helped Germany remove many authoritarian features still retained following the end of World War II, marking a turning point in Germany values as ordinary people rejected authoritarian outlook in favor of democratic values.[citation needed]


Order of Malta[edit]

  • In December 2016 Matthew Festing, Grand Master of the Order of Malta, dismissed its Grand Chancellor Albrecht von Boeselager for allowing the distribution of contraceptives in violation of the Catholic Church's policy. Boeslanger protested that the dismissal was irregular under the Order's constitution and appealed to Pope Francis. Francis ordered an investigation of the dispute, then demanded and received Festing's resignation. The Order elected Giacomo dalla Torre del Tempio di Sanguinetto as Festing's successor on a program of constitutional reform and promoting religious obedience.




  • The constitutional crisis of 1993: a conflict between Russian President Boris Yeltsin and the Russian parliament led by Ruslan Khasbulatov. It emerged due to disagreements regarding the demarcation of political authority. Russian leaders agreed to hold a referendum in April 1993 that would determine whether the presidency or the parliament would be the dominant institution in the Russian political system.[14] The parliament temporarily reneged on its commitment to a referendum and it prompted Yeltsin to issue a decree giving the president more authority. This was met with resistance even from among figures within the executive department such as Yurii Shokov, chair of the president's Security Council and Aleksandr Rutskoy, Yeltsin's Vice President.[14] Anticipating impeachment, Yeltsin dissolved the parliament in September 21, 1993 and called for fresh elections.[15] The president did not have the constitutional authority to do this and the Constitutional Court promptly ruled that the decree was unconstitutional.[15] This resulted to ten days of street fighting between the police, pro-parliamentary demonstrators, and groups loyal to the president.[16] Aleksandr Rutskoy was sworn as the acting President of Russia for a few days. The crisis ended after a military siege of the parliament building, which claimed 187 lives.


This covers the Kingdom of Scotland, which became part of the Kingdom of Great Britain after 1707. For constitutional crises since then, see United Kingdom below.


Catalan president, Carles Puigdemont, addresses the crowd following the unilateral declaration of independence on 27 October

United Kingdom[edit]

North America[edit]



United States[edit]

The Electoral Commission was a panel that resolved the disputed presidential election of 1876.




New Zealand[edit]

Papua New Guinea[edit]


South America[edit]




  • 2017 Venezuelan constitutional crisis: The constitutional chamber of the Supreme Tribunal of Justice ruled that the country's legislature, the National Assembly, was operating in contempt of the constitution due to prior rulings that some members had been improperly elected, and assumed legislative power for itself. Politicians opposed to the government of President Nicolás Maduro, as well as Maduro's Prosecutor General, denounced the ruling for undermining the constitutional order, and the Tribunal rescinded it the following day. Maduro summoned a Constituent Assembly, nominally to draft a new constitution, but in practice to assert his authority against that of the National Assembly. As of 2020 the crisis remains unresolved, with National Assembly President Juan Guaidó claiming the presidency in opposition to Maduro.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Contiades, Xenophon (2016). Constitutions in the Global Financial Crisis: A Comparative Analysis. Oxon: Routledge. p. 53. ISBN 9781409466314.
  2. ^ Azari, Julia; Masket, Seth (February 9, 2017). "The 4 Types of Constitutional Crises". FiveThirtyEight.
  3. ^ Graber, Mark A. (2015). A New Introduction to American Constitutionalism. Oxford University Press. p. 244.
  4. ^ a b Sinopoli, Richard (1996). From Many, One: Readings in American Political and Social Thought. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press. p. 185. ISBN 0878406263.
  5. ^ Hoskyns, Catherine (1968). The Congo since independence, January 1960-December, 1961.
  6. ^ "Q&A: Egypt constitutional crisis". BBC. 24 December 2012.
  7. ^ Frisch, Hillel. "Egypt's Constitutional Crisis". Retrieved 16 November 2011.
  8. ^ "Gambian president Yahya Jammeh rejects election result". The Guardian. Reuters. 9 December 2016. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 19 January 2017.
  9. ^ "Gambia crisis: Senegal troops 'enter' to back new president". BBC. January 19, 2017. Retrieved 19 January 2017.
  10. ^ Barber, Nick (2012). The Constitutional State.
  11. ^ Monarchy of Norway#Council of State[better source needed]
  12. ^ Storting[better source needed]
  13. ^
  14. ^ a b Huskey, Eugene (2016). Presidential Power in Russia. London: Routledge. ISBN 9781315482194.
  15. ^ a b Taylor, Brian (2003). Politics and the Russian Army: Civil-Military Relations, 1689–2000. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 282. ISBN 0521816742.
  16. ^ Saunders, Robert; Strukov, Vlad (2010). Historical Dictionary of the Russian Federation. Lanham, MD: The Scarecrow Press, Inc. p. 132.
  17. ^ Bogdanor, Vernon (1997). The Monarchy and the Constitution.
  18. ^ "Suspending Parliament was unlawful, court rules". 2019-09-24. Retrieved 2019-12-10.
  19. ^ Bloomberg, Edward Evans and Jonathan Browning | (2019-09-24). "Analysis | How Brexit Could Unleash a U.K. Constitutional Crisis". Washington Post. ISSN 0190-8286. Retrieved 2019-09-25.
  20. ^ Sandbach, Antoinette (2019-09-25). "Constitutional crisis: this looks like lights out for Boris and Brexit". ISSN 0140-0460. Retrieved 2019-09-25.
  21. ^ Green, David Allen (September 2, 2019). "The UK has not yet had a constitutional crisis over Brexit—but it could do soon". Retrieved 2019-09-25.
  22. ^ "From Magna Carta to Brexit: 800 years of constitutional crises in Britain". Reuters. 2019-08-30. Retrieved 2019-09-25.
  23. ^ Dickinson, H. T. (2014). Britain and the American Revolution.
  24. ^ Ellis, Richard E. (1989). The Union at Risk: Jacksonian Democracy, States' Rights and the Nullification Crisis.
  25. ^ Philip Abbott (23 June 2008). Accidental Presidents: Death, Assassination, Resignation, and Democratic Succession. Springer. ISBN 978-0-230-61303-4.
  26. ^ McCullough, David (2003). Truman. p. 1069.
  27. ^ Marcus, Maeva (1994). Truman and the Steel Seizure Case.
  28. ^ Pohlman, Harry (2005). Constitutional Debate in Action: Governmental Powers.
  29. ^ Schudson, Michael (1992). Watergate in American Memory.
  30. ^ Kenny, Mark (3 November 2017). "Citizenship fiasco deepens, threatening Malcolm Turnbull's authority". Canberra Times. Fairfax Media. Retrieved 3 November 2017.
  31. ^ Remeikis, Amy (18 August 2017). "Constitutional crisis leaves Turnbull government fighting for its political life". Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 25 August 2017.
  32. ^ Ireland, Judith; Massola, James (19 August 2017). "Barnaby Joyce, Fiona Nash citizenship saga: Nationals in crisis, government in turmoil". Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 25 August 2017.
  33. ^ Acuerdo de la Cámara de Diputados sobre el grave quebrantamiento del orden constitucional y legal de la República