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Problem or conflict in the function of a government that a political constitution or other fundamental governing law is perceived to be unable to resolve
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.
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.
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]
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
The constitutional crisis of 1993: a conflict between Russian PresidentBoris 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 on 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 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 Electoral Commission was a panel that resolved the disputed presidential election of 1876.
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.
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 1975 Australian constitutional crisis saw the Prime MinisterGough Whitlam and his government dismissed by the nation's Governor-GeneralSir 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.
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.