Constitutional crisis

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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, 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 the right to free 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 politico-legal resolution usually establishes the legal precedent to resolve future crises of constitutional administration. In the U.S. system of government, the Constitution does not explicitly address the matter of whether or not a state can legally secede from the Union; however, after the American Civil War (1861–1865) thwarted the secession of the Southern United States, the accepted doctrine of constitutional law is that a state cannot legally leave the Union.[citation needed]

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 Wickremesinghe refused to accepted the dismissal while stating its unconstitutional and undemocratic.





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




  • 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 made obsolete.




  • The crossing of the Rubicon by Julius Caesar in 49 BC with his legions. This action, which had no precedent, precipitated a crisis only fully resolved in 31 BC, when Octavian defeated all his enemies to become the sole master of the Roman world.


  • 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.
  • 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.[18]
  • 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.[19]
  • In 1841 the death of President William Henry Harrison resulted in Vice-President John Tyler becoming President, the first vice-president to succeed to the presidency. He assumed full presidential powers, although there was doubt whether the actual office of President "devolved" upon the Vice President or merely its powers and duties. The "Tyler Precedent" governed future successions and eventually became codified in the Twenty-fifth Amendment. Some opposition Whig members of Congress, including John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay, held that Tyler should be a caretaker under the title of "Acting President". He was referred to as "His Accidency".[20] However, both houses of Congress adopted a resolution confirming that Tyler was the tenth President of the United States without any qualification. Unsuccessful amendments had been proposed in both houses to strike out the word "President" in favor of language including the term "Vice President" for such cases. Tyler had correspondence from his political opponents to the White House addressed to the "Vice President" or "Acting President" returned unopened.[21]
  • The 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.
  • In the Watergate scandal (1972–74), 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.[22][23] The dismissal of independent special prosecutor Archibald Cox, and the resignations of Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus on October 20, 1973, led to the Independent Counsel Act for a more impartial way of investigating high-level public integrity cases in the executive branch without interference from the President or other executive branch leaders. Prior to the Independent Counsel Act a Special Prosecutor was still under the authority of the President and any investigations into the executive branch could be stopped by the President by simply firing the Special Prosecutor.




New Zealand[edit]

Papua New Guinea[edit]


South America[edit]



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. ^ Dickinson, H. T. (2014). Britain and the American Revolution.
  19. ^ Ellis, Richard E. (1989). The Union at Risk: Jacksonian Democracy, States' Rights and the Nullification Crisis.
  20. ^ "John Tyler". White House. Retrieved January 3, 2017.
  21. ^ Philip Abbott (23 June 2008). Accidental Presidents: Death, Assassination, Resignation, and Democratic Succession. Springer. ISBN 978-0-230-61303-4.
  22. ^ Pohlman, Harry (2005). Constitutional Debate in Action: Governmental Powers.
  23. ^ Schudson, Michael (1992). Watergate in American Memory.
  24. ^ Kenny, Mark (3 November 2017). "Citizenship fiasco deepens, threatening Malcolm Turnbull's authority". Canberra Times. Fairfax Media. Retrieved 3 November 2017.
  25. ^ Remeikis, Amy (18 August 2017). "Constitutional crisis leaves Turnbull government fighting for its political life". Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 25 August 2017.
  26. ^ 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.
  27. ^ Acuerdo de la Cámara de Diputados sobre el grave quebrantamiento del orden constitucional y legal de la República