From Constitutional Idolatry to Constitutional Engagement: The Role of Literacy

The current tumultuous state of constitutional democracy has brought forward some essential questions about the relationship between States and citizens. One of these surrounds the significance of constitutional literacy within contemporary democracies, and involves several elements. Firstly, what is meant by constitutional literacy, and do surveys of citizen knowledge adequately capture the level of awareness or interest regarding constitutional arrangements ? Secondly, if constitutions are seen primarily as legal documents that employ top-down approaches to meaning via supreme or constitutional courts, then what should we expect from citizens in relation to constitutional literacy? Finally, how can citizen knowledge and engagement regarding constitutional literacy efforts be improved? While we believe an attitude of idolatry has not done the constitutional project much good, we suggest that the idea of constitutional engagement may prove more beneficial to future democratic health.

Retaining Constitutional Faith in Authoritarian Times: A View from India

In my presentation, I will argue that constitutional faith, rather than ‘idolatry’, can at times counter the effects of populist, authoritarian forms of constitutionalism – especially variants spurred by religious beliefs that are now ascendant or dominant in every inhabited continent. Relying upon recent experiences in India in particular, I will argue that faith in ideas about constitutions and constitutional values, as well as literacy about the constitutional text, can play an important role in enabling groups to provide stiff resistance to populist regimes.

What Counts as Constitutional Idolatry?

Taiwan’s supreme law is officially known as the Constitution of the Republic of China, enacted in Nanjing, China in 1947. Recently, proposals for another round of revisions have emerged in Taiwan at the behest of both the ruling Democratic Progressive Party and the opposition party KMT. Unsurprisingly, this has incurred the wrath of the Beijing government, which continues to claim Taiwan as part of its territory. Is the importance of a codified constitution over-emphasised in Taiwan? More broadly, what counts as constitutional idolatry? The answer depends in part on how wide the gap is between the big-C Constitution and the small-c constitution. Ceteris paribus, a written constitution is more likely to be overvalued when its provisions do not regularly function as supreme law, as the practical impact of codification is limited. I suggest that constitutional idolatry emerges particularly when a constitution gradually becomes a parchment barrier and mainly functions symbolically.

The Turkish Constitution as a Disrespected Idol

In the past decades, constitutional reform has been a quasi-permanent item on Turkey’s political agenda. The answer to many political problems, it is suggested, consists of formal constitutional change, with citizens affirming this position by engaging in constitutional debates and actively participating in constitutional referenda. Between 2010 and 2017, two (successful) major reforms and two (failed) constitution-making processes took place. Most recently, the governing AKP have introduced a plan for “a constitution of re-founding” by 2023, the country’s centenary. Given the continuous engagement with constitutional form and its refinement, it is striking that Turkish political actors also brazenly violate the constitution in a variety of ways. To assess the true value of the formal constitution in the Turkish constitutional order, I explore the apparent discrepancy between a preoccupation with formal constitutional design and outright disrespect for the text by political actors.

Enhancing the constitution’s prominence through violation? The case of the Netherlands

My presentation first discusses the characteristics of the Dutch Constitution that traditionally cause a obvious lack of idolatry. Second, I will elaborate on two recent events that may change this approach. On the one hand, the outbreak of the pandemic prompted the government to severely circumscribe fundamental rights. The ensuing discussion increased awareness among politicians and citizens that the constitution could be a valuable tool to evaluate, or criticize, anti-corona measures. On the other hand, the findings of a recent parliamentary inquiry revealed that the government had breached the fundamental constitutional principle of transparency, in failing to provide parliament with the necessary information. This has led to extensive political and public debates about the meaning of this principle. Against this backdrop, I reflect on the extent to which it is desirable that the Constitution is given greater prominence if this occurs as a result of violations of its provisions.