Elections of various kinds can play important roles in the initiation and other aspects of constitution-making processes. Because of the complexity and political sensitivity of the issues relating to both the process and the contents of the constitution that so often are central in such elections, the roles of civil society and the media in providing information and civic education can often be of great significance.
The numerous kinds of elections that can have major significance for constitution-making processes include:
- a normal election for the legislature where a major issue for voters concerns whether a constitutional reform process should be initiated;
- a normal election occurring during a constitution-making process, when issues about the process, or the contents of the proposed constitution, may well be important electoral issues;
- an election to select the members of a constitution-making body, such as a constituent assembly; and
- an election for the legislature held after the new or revised constitution is adopted (which may be the first for a new legislature established in accordance with the new constitutional provisions), when key electoral issues may relate to the implementation of the new or revised constitution.
Such elections may involve issues about candidates’ and parties’ varying commitments to a constitution-making process, their views on the contents of a new constitution, and adherence to and implementation of new constitutional arrangements. They will therefore often be elections with unusual significance for a country. Voters may have opportunities to influence constitutional outcomes, both by voting and by participating in debates about process, constitutional contents, and implementation.
It is common for civil society and the media to play major roles in informing people about issues in relation to elections, and in addition for civil society to play a role in mobilizing and organizing people—for example, to lobby and apply other forms of pressure to parties and candidates, and to vote in particular ways. Because of the fundamental issues about the future of the country likely to be at stake in an election connected with a constitution-making process, the roles of the media and civil society may be particularly significant.
In many countries, the voting preferences of a large proportion of the voters are set (most voters having allegiances to particular parties), with most elections decided by the “swing” votes of a minority, with a limited range of issues likely to attract the voters’ attention. But in elections connected to a constitution-making process there will usually be many issues on which the voters should focus. Voters may need encouragement to think beyond the immediate future (as is the case in a normal election) and instead think about the shape of the state and the rights of people far into the future. They may need to be helped to think of themselves not just as workers (especially when economic times are hard), parents (when education is the main issue), and patients (when healthcare is at stake). They are also people with much wider concerns; they are also citizens (who want effective and responsible government—even from “their” candidates), they are taxpayers (who want value for money and financial accountability), they are landless or landowners, minorities or members of the majority, women or men, urban or rural dwellers, and so on. A constitution will be relevant to all their concerns. And many may find that it is not their “regular” parties that have the best approach to the constitutional issues.
In countries emerging from turmoil to make a constitution, political parties may not be well established, though usually some sorts of groups of “like-minded” candidates will emerge. And a constituent assembly and even a parliament may comprise more nonparty members than does a typical legislature. So it may be important to focus on the views and capacities of the individual candidates when deciding how to vote.
Civil society and the media can play vital roles in alerting the voters to such issues. They should not rely solely on either official “voter education” or political parties. The media—to the extent that they are independent of political parties and powerful economic forces with their own interests in election outcomes—can also play critically important roles in providing information to voters.