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A constitutional crisis is a situation that a legal system's constitution or other basic principles of operation appear unable to resolve; it often results in a breakdown in the orderly operation of government. Often, generally speaking, a constitutional crisis is a situation in which separate factions within a government disagree about the extent to which each of these factions hold sovereignty. Most commonly, constitutional crises involve some degree of conflict between different branches of government (e.g., executive, legislature, and/or judiciary), or between different levels of government in a federal system (e.g., state and federal governments).
A constitutional crisis may occur because one or more parties to the dispute willfully chooses to violate a provision of a constitution or an unwritten constitutional convention, or it may occur when the disputants disagree over the interpretation of such a provision or convention. If the dispute arises because some aspect of the constitution is ambiguous or unclear, the ultimate resolution of the crisis often establishes a precedent for the future. For instance, the United States Constitution is silent on the question of whether states may secede from the Union; however, after the secession of several states was forcibly prevented in the American Civil War, it has become generally accepted that states cannot leave the Union.
A constitutional crisis is distinct from a rebellion, which is defined as when factions outside of a government challenge that government's sovereignty, as in a coup or revolution led by the military or civilian protesters.
A constitutional crisis can lead to government paralysis, collapse, or civil war.
- 1 African Constitutional crises
- 2 Asian Constitutional crises
- 3 European Constitutional crises
- 4 North American Constitutional crises
- 5 Oceanian Constitutional crises
- 6 South American Constitutional crises
- 7 Footnotes
African Constitutional crises
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.
- A constitutional crisis occurred in Malawi in 2012 with regards 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.
Asian Constitutional crises
- 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.[clarification needed] 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.
- 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.
- 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[clarification needed], 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.
European Constitutional crises
- The World War II conduct of Leopold III included violation of constitutional principles, including surrender to Germany against ministerial advice. When he returned to Belgium in 1950, a general strike against him pushed him into abdication.
- 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.
- For events after 1707, see below.
- 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, in which King Henry VIII repudiated papal authority and created himself Supreme Head of the Church of England, leading to the English Reformation
- 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 constitutional crisis of the 16 May 1877: President Patrice de Mac-Mahon dismisses Prime Minister Jules Simon and names Albert de Broglie to replace him. The National Assembly refuses to recognize the new government and a crisis, which ends with the dissolution of the Assembly and new elections, ensues.
- 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 1981 election, when, due to a quirk in that country's Single Transferrable Vote system, the party winning more than half the votes won fewer than half the seats
- 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
- 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, which resulted in a military siege of the parliament building and street fighting, claiming 187 lives. Aleksandr Rutskoy assumed the powers of the Acting President of Russia for a few days.
- The succession crisis resulting from the death of Queen Margaret in 1290. Edward I of England, whose son Edward was to marry Margaret, was asked to arbitrate, and chose John Balliol, who swore an oath of fealty to Edward, turning Scotland into an English vassal in 1292. Soon, Balliol and the Scottish nobility revolted, leading to the Wars of Scottish Independence.
- 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.
North American Constitutional crises
- 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 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 Québec did not have a veto on patriation, and the process was legitimate and binding. The National Assembly of Québec 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, but successfully, gained a prorogation of Parliament from the Governor General. 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 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 the death of President William Harrison resulted in Vice-President John Tyler becoming President, the first vice-president to succeed thus 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 become 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". 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 messages to the President to strike out the word "President" in favor of language including the term "Vice President" to refer to Tyler. Tyler had correspondence from his political opponents to the White House addressed to the "Vice President" or "Acting President" returned unopened.
- 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.
- 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, during the Watergate scandal. This lead 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.
Oceanian Constitutional crises
- The 1975 Australian constitutional crisis saw the Prime Minister Gough Whitlam dismissed by the nation's Governor-General Sir John Kerr, in response to a prolonged budget deadlock in Parliament. This occurred even though Whitlam's government had the confidence of the lower house, the House of Representatives. In the Australian Constitution the Australian 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 a money bill, and that is what it did on this occasion.
- 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 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.
South American Constitutional crises
- 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.