3.2.2 The roundtable

Roundtables are informal consultative processes sometimes used to negotiate initial steps in a constitution-making process during a period of transition from an authoritarian to a more democratic regime. They usually occur in situations of national crisis, where the existing national constitution does not provide a legitimate basis or adequate guidance for a workable constitutional reform process. Pressure to escape the crisis results in members of the national government consulting the political opposition (and sometimes other interests) about the steps needed to initiate and advance a solution to the crisis, including agreement on constitutional reform that is then usually undertaken in accordance with the requirements of the existing constitution.

The roundtable process therefore usually enables the maintenance of legal continuity, which can be important in situations where those controlling the existing regime remain powerful and would consider a break in legal continuity illegitimate. In this respect, a roundtable is different from many national conferences (institutions also often used in situations of national crisis) where loss of the legitimacy of the existing regime and the extent of the national crisis are often so great that the national conference seeks a break in legal continuity by declaring itself sovereign and establishing transitional constitutional arrangements while a new constitution is being developed. (See part 2.1.9.)

The use of the term “roundtable” in relation to constitution-making processes is a relatively new development. It is most commonly used with reference to the processes in Hungary and Poland in the late 1980s, both part of transitions from authoritarian socialist regimes. (The case study of the constitution-making process in Poland—see appendix A.10—provides an overview of how a prominent example of a roundtable process operated in practice, and also outlines subsequent steps in the constitution-making process in Poland that began with the roundtable.)

The term has also been applied to other processes in Eastern Europe from the late 1980s— particularly those in Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, and the German Democratic Republic (Eastern Germany)—as well as some in Latin America (notably Chile in 1989 and Colombia in 1990) and to processes in Spain (in 1976) and South Africa (in the early 1990s). Similar arrangements have been used in many other processes without being described as roundtables. Examples include the processes used to establish some of the national conferences (see part 3.1.3) held in French-speaking African countries from 1990 to 1993, the best known example being Benin. (See the case study of the constitution-making process there, in appendix A.2.) The process in pre-independence India from the 1930s for consultation among local actors about decisions on constitutional progress toward independence might also be classified as involving a roundtable.

Roundtables themselves usually involve at least two major steps. First, government and opposition groups engage to decide on structures for negotiations (numbers of representatives, chairing arrangements, working groups, and so forth). Such negotiations can take time—six months in the case of Poland. Second, meetings of the agreed-upon roundtable structures are held, and can often (though not always) be completed in quite a short time—just a few in the cases of both Hungary and Poland. The structures used vary greatly from case to case, there generally (though not always) being a high degree of flexibility in the arrangements, for example concerning criteria for public participation, determining the agenda, and setting decision-making rules. Some roundtables are less flexible. For example, in Hungary in 1989 a three-tiered structure was established. There was also agreement among the nine opposition groups that participated in the process that all their decisions would be made by consensus. One result was that each opposition group had a veto on decisions on joint opposition positions, and hence considerable influence on the roundtable process. Much of the work is usually done in committees and working groups and informal consultations. The work of the roundtable often occurs in secret, or at least without any media or involvement of members of the public.

Because a roundtable has no basis in constitutional or other legal rules, there is usually no hierarchy among the participants, no formal rules for its operation, and no preassigned status even to its most fundamental decisions. When the process starts, the participants will often be quite unclear about the direction in which things will go. The key point is that public participation in the process represents a commitment to negotiating a solution peacefully rather than using the alternative of resort to open conflict and violence.

The main reason why the period within which the roundtable itself meets is quite brief is that the roundtable process is used only to negotiate limited initial steps in a reform process; the legal steps will be taken elsewhere, in institutions with a legal basis. There are cases, however, where roundtable processes take far longer, usually because either the changes being negotiated in the particular case are far-reaching or because the government tends to see itself as still negotiating from a position of strength.

South Africa is an example of far-reaching change being negotiated through such a process. There the process was used to negotiate the concept and content of the interim constitution. The negotiations to establish it, along with the negotiations held to determine transition arrangements, constituted the roundtable phase. The negotiations to establish those processes began in the 1980s, while the negotiations on the arrangements eventually incorporated in the interim constitution were undertaken through the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA 1 and CODESA 2) and the multiparty negotiating process that ran from 1991 to 1993. In Chile, the government installed by the 1973 military coup continued to see itself as in a fairly strong political position, despite the defeat of the dictator, Pinochet, in a presidential plebiscite in 1988 held under a constitution imposed by the military in 1980. But that unexpected defeat created pressure for political and constitutional change that resulted in almost ten months of intense negotiations among the military government, the main opposition political parties, and political parties that supported the military. Although ultimately successful, the negotiations came close to collapse on several occasions.

After the roundtable has completed its work, the constitutional change agreed to through the process happens elsewhere. In a majority of cases the agreement covers the details of constitutional amendments and also the idea that the amendments will be made through an existing constitutional reform process. That was the case in Chile, Hungary, and Poland, where liberalizing amendments to be made by existing but undemocratic parliaments were agreed upon. Similarly, in South Africa, the contents of the interim constitution were agreed upon, as was the use of the existing parliament to adopt it (thereby providing the legal continuity of such importance to the ruling party). In a few other cases, and especially in preparations for a national conference, a roundtable is less focused on details of constitutional amendments than on the next steps in a reform process. The roundtable process in Benin, for example, did agree on basic principles that should be met by any new constitution, but was much more concerned with agreement on the need for and structures and other arrangements for the national conference.

The high degree of informality and flexibility involved in a roundtable makes it quite different from most peace processes and from legally defined constitution-making institutions such as constitutional commissions and constituent assemblies. There can be advantages to informality (which is often accompanied by secrecy) in that the participants can avoid loss of legitimacy or stature if the process does not achieve particular outcomes. They can then be freer to make some other move to initiate change than would otherwise be the case. There may also be advantages in the flexibility regarding possible outcomes that is permitted by a roundtable process, as this can include arrangements for incremental progress in reforms that can be revisited as the fruits of initial progress are tasted.

On the other hand, where the roundtable marks the beginning of a process that continues to have limited popular involvement (as was the case with the process in Hungary for many years after 1989), secrecy and the lack of public involvement in the roundtable process can contribute to a lack of legitimacy of the constitution resulting from the process.

There can be immense pressures on those involved in attempting to establish or operate within roundtable processes in situations of deep crisis, where there is a grave risk of violence in the event of failure, as was the case in Eastern Europe and Latin America in the late 1980s. Final responsibility rested with those actors. This was a different situation from that of pre-independence India in the 1930s and early 1940s, where most Indian actors felt that the British colonial government had final responsibility, and they could afford to remain relatively disengaged.

Roundtable processes can sometimes offer other advantages in situations involving extremely undemocratic and repressive regimes where inflexible constitutional arrangements have made liberalizing reform difficult to achieve. First, the process can provide legitimacy for a reform process in a situation where the existing regime has little legitimacy, by enabling an inclusive process in a situation where democracy was absent. It allows inclusion of a wide range of actors in a process intended to reach common agreement on the way forward. Second, in situations such as Hungary (and many others) where there is no coherent opposition, a roundtable can provide a framework within which opposition groups can emerge and learn to cooperate, negotiate with the government, and participate in constitutional decision-making, in preparation for participation in government. Third, it can provide a form of limited power-sharing arrangements (between the government and the emerging opposition) where none was possible under the existing constitution. Fourth, it can permit concessions to be made by groups in opposition to the old regime (as was the case in Chile, Hungary, Poland, and Spain) without those concessions necessarily being incorporated into final constitutional arrangements. Instead, the opposition groups remain free to engage in developing more permanent constitutional arrangements when the agreed-upon reforms have worked to change the balance of political forces, thereby opening possibilities for more significant change to occur. Fifth, it can provide for learning (by both the old regime and emerging opposition groups) about constitutions and constitutional limits. Sixth, a roundtable can help develop cooperation among opposing factions (government and opposition) and their leaders that can contribute in many ways to progress in later stages of reform processes.

Practical tips

The following practical tips are offered for anyone considering making use of roundtable arrangements as part of a constitution-making process:

  • A roundtable is mainly restricted to use in situations where there is both an authoritarian regime that retains a reasonable degree of authority but is becoming open to the possibility of reform, and also some coherence and leadership in the opposition groups that enable them to cooperate effectively.
  • It should normally be as inclusive as possible, in terms of elements in the existing regime and the various opposition groups. Only by being inclusive will it give sufficient support to the reforms agreed on through the roundtable process.
  • The practical arrangements for the roundtable process should normally be flexible, and permit the parties to work together in whatever way enables the process to make progress.
  • In addition to working toward agreement on constitutional change and next steps in the constitution-making process, a roundtable should aim to contribute to the development of understanding and working relationships between government and opposition leaders.
  • There are often advantages for opposition groups if a roundtable process agrees to a limited degree of reform that may open the way to more extensive reforms later. There can be a risk for opposition groups that agreement upon too much detail at the roundtable stage may lock in concessions that offer little advantage to them at a later stage of the reform process.