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. 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. 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. 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.
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
- President Joseph Kasavubu and Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba attempted to dismiss each other in September 1960. General Mobutu Sese Seko deposed both in a coup later that month, then restored Kasavubu as president.
- 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.
- 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
- Following the victory of Adama Barrow in the 2016 presidential election, president Yahya Jammeh rejected the results and refused to step down. On 17 January, Jammeh declared a 90-day state of emergency in an attempt to extend his term of office. Senegal, Ghana and Nigerian forces entered the Gambia on 19 January to enforce the election results. On 21 January, Jammeh stepped down and left the country.
- Amid demands from United Kingdom politicians to enfranchise the black majority population, the white minority government unilaterally declared independence in 1965. The UK rejected the declaration and continued to claim sovereignty over Rhodesia until a framework for independence and black enfranchisement was negotiated in the 1979 Lancaster House Agreement.
- 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.
- Mohammed Reza Pahlavi's 1953 dismissal of Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh and Mossadegh's subsequent refusal to quit the office
- 1966 Sarawak constitutional crisis started by a group of politicians who were dissatisfied towards Stephen Kalong Ningkan's leadership as chief minister. Ningkan was later removed from the chief minister post by the Governor of Sarawak in June 1966.
- The 1983 Malaysian constitutional crisis saw Prime Minister Mahathir pushing forward an amendment of Article 66 of the Federal Constitution, which set the time limit of the Malaysian monarch to veto a law within 30 days. The proposals generated a great deal of controversy between the government and the monarchy, of which the former had to launch a public campaign to pressure the monarchy to assent to the amendments.[clarification needed]
- The 1988 Malaysian constitutional crisis was a series of events that began with the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) party elections in 1987 and ended with the suspension and the eventual removal of Lord President of the Supreme Court Tun Salleh Abas from his seat.
- The 1993 amendments to the Constitution of Malaysia (by some interpretations a constitutional crisis) involved the limitation of monarchs' legal immunity in Malaysia. Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad successfully amended the constitution to make the monarchies more accountable to their actions.
- The 2009 Perak constitutional crisis occurred in the Malaysian state of Perak when party defections caused the state ruling coalition, Pakatan Rakyat, to lose its majority in the state assembly. The Sultan of Perak refused to dissolve the state assembly when requested and dismissed the Menteri Besar (Chief Minister) in the absence of a no confidence vote.[clarification needed]
- The 2020 Malaysian constitutional crisis was a series of events that began when Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and associates attempted to replace his coalition partners and form a unity government supported by opposition parties.
- 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]
- 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.
- The Royal Question over the status of king Leopold III began when he acted against ministerial advice during the 1940 Nazi invasion and refused to join the government in exile. Deported to Germany before Belgium's 1944 liberation, Leopold's return was narrowly approved in a 1950 referendum but a subsequent general strike prompted him to abdicate the following year.
- In 1990, King Baudouin refused routine Royal Assent to the law on abortion in Belgium. The issue was resolved by (constitutionally but controversially) having Baudouin temporarily declared incapable of reigning, the Council of Ministers giving assent as provided for in the Belgian Constitution, and Baudouin declared capable again.
- The 1215 Barons' revolt against the rule of King John, which led to the Magna Carta. Immediately, John repudiated Magna Carta, leading to the First Barons' War.
- The Break with Rome: Pope Clement VII's refusal to annul King Henry VIII's first marriage impeded the king's efforts to produce a male heir. Henry repudiated the Pope's ecclesiastical authority within England and required all officials to recognize him as Supreme Head of the Church of England.
- King Charles I's insistence on the Divine Right of Kings, manifest in his Personal Rule from 1629 to 1640, and leading directly to the Wars of the Three Kingdoms.
- The Glorious Revolution of 1688–89: The flight of King James II/VII from the country left no king in his place to rule England or Scotland or to summon a Parliament. When King William and Queen Mary jointly replaced him there was therefore no legally recognised Parliament to legitimise their irregular succession to the throne. This led to the Crown and Parliament Recognition Act 1689.
- The early 1930s political crisis in Estonia as two constitutional reforms had been rejected by the electorate and only the third referendum in 1933 succeeded in replacing the parliamentary republic with the presidential republic. The succeeding constitutional reform was proposed by the Vaps Movement, who were however kept from power by the self-coup of Prime Minister Konstantin Päts, who was supported by the Riigikogu.
- 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.
- The 1981 election, when, due to a quirk in that country's Single Transferable Vote system, the party winning more than half the votes won fewer than half the seats in parliament.
Order of Malta
- 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.
- Impeachment of prime minister Selmer's cabinet in 1883/1884 regarding the king's right to veto changes to the constitution, and establishment of an ad-hoc parliamentary practice until amended to the constitution in 2007.
- Dissolution of the union between Norway and Sweden in 1905[further explanation needed]
- Caesar's Civil War: In 50 BC the Roman Senate ordered Julius Caesar, a popular military general and territorial governor, to disband his army and return to Rome. Rather than comply, Caesar crossed the boundary of his territory with a legion of his army intending to confront the government. The Senate retreated before his advance, allowing him to establish a dictatorship that set the template for the Roman Empire.
- 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. 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. Anticipating impeachment, Yeltsin dissolved the parliament in September 21, 1993 and called for fresh elections. The president did not have the constitutional authority to do this and the Constitutional Court promptly ruled that the decree was unconstitutional. This resulted to ten days of street fighting between the police, pro-parliamentary demonstrators, and groups loyal to the president. 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.
- The death of three-year-old Queen Margaret in 1290 prompted a succession dispute involving thirteen claimants. The interim Guardians of Scotland asked King Edward I of England to arbitrate the dispute. Edward pursued his own interest in establishing lordship over Scotland by selecting claimant John Balliol in return for an oath of fealty. Scottish nobles rejected Edward's control, leading to the Wars of Scottish Independence and a 10-year vacancy of the throne.
- The 2017–18 Spanish constitutional crisis saw the Government of Spain and the Generalitat of Catalonia clashing over the latter's planning of an independence referendum on 1 October 2017, leading to the Catalan government openly defying instructions from the Spanish Constitutional Court and in state prosecutors filling criminal charges on Catalan leading officials for rebellion, disobedience, misusing public funds and making deliberately unlawful decisions. General strikes and tense demonstrations took place during these weeks. On 27 October, the Parliament of Catalonia tried to found a Catalan republic with a unilateral declaration of independence. At the same time, the Senate approved the application of Article 155 of the Constitution, which led to the cessation of the Catalan Government, the dissolution of parliament, the call for elections for 21 December and the direct rule over Catalonia. The Supreme Court imprisoned a large part of the Puigdemont executive, the Speaker of the Parliament and the two leaders of the two major independentists civil associations, as well as the flight to Belgium, Switzerland, Germany and Scotland of President Puigdemont, four regional ex-regional ministers and two political leaders. For July 2018, the direct rule ended and the prisoners are still in preventive jail in Catalan prisons.
- The regency crisis of 1788: A new Parliament convened while King George III was unable, due to illness, to charge it with its responsibilities or assent to any bills. Parliament nonetheless submitted an irregular bill that provided for the Prince of Wales to act as regent, and the Lord Chancellor affixed the royal seal to it without the king's signature. This precedent was repeated in 1811 after the king again fell ill.
- The rejection of the 1909 People's Budget by the House of Lords. This caused a two-year impasse, leading to the Parliament Act 1911.
- The 1936 Edward VIII abdication crisis, when King Edward VIII proposed to marry divorcee Wallis Simpson against the advice of his ministers.
- The 2019 British prorogation controversy in October 2019, where the Government advised Queen Elizabeth II to prorogue Parliament (see also: Canada, 2008), an act found unlawful by the Supreme Court as preventing the ability of Parliament to carry out its constitutional functions without reasonable justification.
- In the King–Byng Affair of 1926, Governor General Viscount Byng of Vimy refused the request of Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King to dissolve Parliament and call new elections after King had, months before, refused to resign. Instead, Byng dismissed King and appointed Arthur Meighen as Prime Minister, after which Meighen found himself unable to retain confidence, triggering his own resignation and an election. Reaction to the affair was reflected in the Balfour Declaration of 1926, the resulting separation of Dominion Governors General from the British government, and the Statute of Westminster 1931 that made each realm of the Crown independent.
- The 1936 Edward VIII abdication crisis, when King Edward VIII proposed to marry divorcee Wallis Simpson against the advice of his ministers.
- The 1982 patriation of the British North America Act was contentious, as there were conflicting opinions from the federal government, provincial governments, and Supreme Court over what exactly the procedure was whereby Canada could request a constitutional amendment from the United Kingdom. The Supreme Court's decision in the Quebec Veto Reference found that Quebec did not have a veto on patriation, and the process was legitimate and binding. The National Assembly of Quebec symbolically refuses to ratify the Constitution Act in its current form.
- The 2008–2009 Canadian parliamentary dispute, in which Liberal, NDP, and Bloc Québécois Members of Parliament attempted to have a vote of non-confidence against the Conservative government and replace it with a coalition government, was unprecedented in the Canadian constitutional system, as formal party-based co-operation was rare. Prime Minister Stephen Harper controversially advised the Governor General to prorogue Parliament. The coalition effort subsequently fell apart, leaving the key questions around the dispute unanswered.
- The 2009 Honduran constitutional crisis saw President Manuel Zelaya attempting to hold a non-binding referendum which Congress and the Supreme Court deemed unconstitutional. The military, following orders from the Supreme Court, arrested President Zelaya.
- The Stamp Act 1765, by which the British Parliament sought to tax the Thirteen Colonies, set off protests from colonial politicians against taxation without representation. Parliament continued to assert its authority in subsequent acts, throwing colonial governments into chaos and eventually leading the colonists to declare total independence from Britain.
- The Nullification Crisis of 1832, in which South Carolina declared that it would not permit collection of a federal tariff. The United States Congress eventually passed a law to authorize the President to use military force in South Carolina to enforce federal laws, as well as a revised tariff law with lower rates.
- In 1841 presidential duties passed to Vice President John Tyler upon the death of President William Henry Harrison. The Constitution was unclear as to whether Tyler should assume the office of President or merely execute the duties of the vacant office. Tyler insisted that politicians recognize him as President and returned, unopened, all mail addressed to the "Vice President" or "Acting President." Despite opposition from some Whig members of Congress, including John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay, both houses passed a resolution confirming Tyler's position. This precedent governed succession until it was codified in the Twenty-fifth Amendment.
- The attempted secession of seven Southern states in 1861, which the federal government did not recognize, leading to the American Civil War.
- 1876 presidential election: Republicans and Democrats disputed voting results in three states. An ad hoc Electoral Commission, created by Congress, voted along party lines in favor of Republican candidate Rutherford B. Hayes, who damped Southern fury by withdrawing federal troops from the South, ending Reconstruction.
- The 1952 steel strike: President Harry S. Truman nationalized the country's steel industry on the basis of his inherent powers in order to prevent a strike that would impede the Korean War. This action reopened the "Great Debate" of 1950–51 regarding the extent of Truman's authority to counter the spread of communism. The Supreme Court enjoined Truman's order in Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer, holding that presidential actions must proceed from constitutional or legislative authority. Truman used the threat of a second nationalization to push steel workers and management to an agreement.
- In the Watergate scandal (1972–1974), President Richard Nixon and his staff obstructed investigations into their political activities. Nixon resigned, under threat of impeachment, after the release of an audio tape showing that he had personally approved the obstruction. Congressional moves to restrain presidential authority continued for years afterward.
- The 1936 Edward VIII abdication crisis, when King Edward VIII proposed to marry divorcee Wallis Simpson against the advice of his ministers.
- The 1975 Australian constitutional crisis saw the Prime Minister Gough Whitlam and his government dismissed by the nation's Governor-General Sir John Kerr, in response to a prolonged budget deadlock in Parliament. The Whitlam government had the confidence of the lower house, the House of Representatives. In the Australian Constitution, the Senate has equal powers with the House of Representatives, except it may not initiate or amend a supply bill. It can, however, reject or defer consideration of such a bill, and that is what it did on this occasion. The Constitution permits the Governor-General to dismiss the government if they cannot command the confidence of Parliament and will not call an election. Though the government lacked the confidence of the Senate, they commanded the confidence of the lower house, where government is formed and confidence motions introduced. Whitlam also stated his intention to call an election, but Kerr nonetheless dismissed him without prior warning and installed Malcolm Fraser as Prime Minister, despite Fraser's inability to command the confidence of either house of Parliament.
- In 2017, the eligibility of a number of Australian parliamentarians to sit in the Parliament of Australia was called into question because of their actual or possible dual citizenship. The issue arises from section 44 of the Constitution of Australia, which prohibits members of either house of the Parliament from having allegiance to a foreign power. Several MPs resigned in anticipation of being ruled ineligible, and five more were forced to resign after being ruled ineligible by the High Court of Australia, including National Party leader and Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce. This became an ongoing political event referred to variously as a "constitutional crisis" or the "citizenship crisis".
- In the Fiji constitutional crisis of 1977, the winning party in a general election failed to name a government due to internal conflicts. The Governor-General intervened, appointing a prime minister from the opposition party.
- The New Zealand constitutional crisis of 1984 was caused by Prime Minister Sir Rob Muldoon's refusal to devalue the dollar as per the instructions of the Prime Minister-elect, David Lange. The outgoing cabinet rebelled against Muldoon, who relented. The upshot was the passage of the Constitution Act, which patriated the constitution from the United Kingdom.
Papua New Guinea
- The Papua New Guinean constitutional crisis of 2011–2012 was caused by a disagreement, involving every branch of government including the Supreme Court, as to who the legitimate Prime Minister was. Specifically, whether Prime Minister Michael Somare's dismissal by the Speaker of the National Parliament while he was in hospital had been lawful. After ten months, the crisis was resolved peacefully by a general election.
- The Tuvaluan constitutional crisis of 2013 occurred when Prime Minister Willy Telavi sought to continue governing after having lost his parliamentary majority. He deferred allowing Parliament to sit, and his ally Speaker Kamuta Latasi did not allow a motion of no confidence to be tabled when it finally did sit. The Opposition accused the government of acting unconstitutionally, and Governor General Sir Iakoba Italeli intervened, removing the Prime Minister from office so that Parliament could decide who should form the government. Telavi sought in vain to ask the Queen of Tuvalu, Elizabeth II, to remove the Governor General. Parliament elected Opposition Leader Enele Sopoaga to the premiership.
- 1973 Chilean coup d'état: Accusing Salvador Allende's government of increasing authoritarianism, the Supreme Court, Comptroller General and Chamber of Deputies declared him out of order, and the Chamber urged the military to put an end to constitutional breaches. The military deposed Allende a few weeks later and abolished the constitution.
- Peruvian Constitutional Crisis of 1992: President Alberto Fujimori, with the support of the armed forces, dissolved the Congress after it rejected his proposal for stronger action against Shining Path and MRTA. Then, he called for elections for a Democratic Constitutional Congress to write the 1993 Peruvian Constitution. Until the new constitution was written, he ruled by decree.
- 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.
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