What’s behind the wave of referendums to change constitutions around the world

On Tuesday night (26), the Tunisian electoral commission reported that 95% of voters who voted in the constitutional referendum held on Monday (25) were in favor of the proposal for a new Magna Carta for the country.

The passage of the new text, which has been denounced as a route to autocracy by giving President Kais Saied sweeping powers and limiting the legislature, is the latest chapter in a 2022 global trend: popular consultations to change articles or completely replace constitutions.

The referendum in Tunisia was the fourth on the constitution of a country this year, and at least two more are scheduled to take place by the end of 2022. Check the list:

  • Serbia (January): changes in the articles of the Constitution dealing with the Judiciary (approved)
  • Belarus (February): Dictator Alexander Lukashenko’s response to protests for democracy, constitutional changes will allow him to remain in office until 2035 and revoked the country’s nuclear-free area status (approved)
  • Kazakhstan (June): proposals to amend 33 of the 98 articles of the Constitution, the changes included decreasing the power of the Executive and increasing that of the Legislative, following protests against the government earlier in the year. (approved)
  • Tunisia (July): a new constitutional text, boycotted by the opposition, concentrates powers on the figure of the president and has been considered the shovel in the dreams of democracy in the north african country. The low turnout (about 30% of voters) indicates that the political crisis in the country, generated by the suspension and then dissolution of Parliament by President Saied, is far from over. (approved)
  • Chile (September): a mostly progressive constituent assembly drafted a text to replace the Constitution of the Pinochet period (1973-1990), reformed since the return of democracy; the new proposal increases social spending and has been considered “fiscally irresponsible”
  • Taiwan (November): Taiwanese will decide whether or not to ratify a constitutional amendment to raise the country’s minimum voting age from 20 to 18

In addition to these six processes already carried out or with a date set, constitutional referendums can also be held in Haiti (for a reform of the current charter) and in Libya (for a new text), two countries plunged into economic crisis and institutional. However, deadlines for these votes have already been postponed before, and it will be a surprise if they happen later in 2022.

Eduardo Fayet, professor of institutional and government relations at Universidade Presbiteriana Mackenzie, believes that many constitutional referendums are being held in 2022 because in the previous two years, with the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, countries were focused on solving their health problems. public and economic, “whether they were democratic countries or not”.

However, in an interview with Gazeta do Povo, he also pointed out that most of these referendums are taking place in countries where mass protests and/or political crises have taken place in recent years and these consultations are instruments to try to defuse internal conflicts.

“There is a worldwide movement to question national states, which are unable to provide a quick and objective answer as the population wants. These are nations going through a process of repositioning their ways of conducting their economies, their national states, their social relations,” explained Fayet.

In this sense, he believes that more constitutional referendums should be proposed in the coming years (as suggested by President Pedro Castillo in Peru), but their effects will largely depend on the degree of democratic maturity of the countries that carry them out.

“Obviously, those countries and nations that do not have a democratic tendency, therefore, a democratic structure, could turn into dictatorships or ultra-radical systems, as is the case of Tunisia, where the attempt is, let’s say, to legalize extremism. Democracy is going through a difficult time because it is based on a consensus building model and this has a time-consuming nature,” he warned.

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