4.1.1 Promoting or organizing for constitutional change or reforms

As discussed in part 2.1.3, under the heading “The political dimensions of starting a process,” the pressure for constitutional reform processes often comes from political action and street action, in which civil society and the media often play significant roles.

In Colombia the media linked with student groups to push for a constitutional referendum on creating a constituent assembly. (See box 1, “Colombia’s popular movement for reform.”) In Kenya, prior to the process that ran from 2000 to 2005, civil society, faced with governmental foot-dragging over starting a constitutional process, created a group of fifty-two religious and secular organizations that set up an unofficial commission to travel the country and collect the views of the people. This elicited such popular enthusiasm that the government reluctantly started an official process of review. One important lesson is that political action is more likely to be successful if civil society organizations can work together to get a process moving. Other forms of political action could include trying to get change onto the agenda of one or more parties—or even trying to create a party with constitutional reform as a main plank. This, however, is complex, and may be possible only as a long-term strategy.

In Afghanistan and Guatemala, civil society played a role during the negotiations about the structure of the process. In Timor-Leste [2002], after the constituent assembly was established, a consortium of civil society organizations became concerned about the short time limits for the assembly, the limited agenda of issues it was considering, and the lack of interest in consulting the people. Given that the United Nations was serving as the transitional administration, the consortium wrote to the United Nations Security Council to ask its members to use their influence to put the conditions in place for a deliberative and participatory process. When this request did not lead to change, the consortium demonstrated in front of the constituent assembly, demanding a more transparent and open process, and this led to changes in how the constituent assembly engaged the public, including holding regular press conferences and limited public consultation on the draft. (See the case study on Timor-Leste, appendix A.11.)

The 2006 People’s Movement in Nepal was an example of street action. It is a form of direct political action that carries its own risks: of creating instability; of physical injury or death to some, as happened in Nepal; and perhaps of undermining belief in the rule of law, thusundercutting the whole idea of a constitution. One demand of leading groups in the movement in Nepal was a constituent assembly. The People’s Movement turned what the political parties had agreed upon from an aspiration into a possibility.

It is difficult to provide guidance to civil society and the media about how best to be effective in playing such roles; much depends on the local context. Civil society, however, will generally be most effective in such roles if it is broad-based, with good networks between the various civil society actors (NGOs, churches, associations, and the like), and if civil society leaders have good links with one another, the media, and political parties. Finally, the campaigns for constitutional change need to be designed to apply real pressure to those in power.