Authoritarian Constitutionalism – Comparative Analysis and Critique. Eds: Helena Alviar García & Günter Frankenberg. Elgar Publishing 2019

This book was designed to analyze and submit to critique an important phenomenon – authoritarian constitutionalism (AC). 15 authors submitted contributions that deal with AC as a phenomenon in its own right, not merely as a derivative or deficient form of liberal constitutionalism. As a result, historical, political-theoretical, cultural, economic, legal perspectives intersect, generate a complex picture of – and develop different tools to criticize – the varieties of AC, a phenomenon that needs to be taken very seriously at this time when democracy is under threat worldwide – in the global north as well as in the global south.

Guided by the question why autocracies of all brands “have” a constitution, most of the authors look for the purposes such constitutions may serve and which audiences they might be meant to address. They explicitly or implicitly question the prevailing opinion that constitutionalism is coextensive with the liberal paradigm, and that “authoritarian constitutionalism” by definition is regarded either as mere window-dressing to camouflage the dark side of authoritarianism, at best “constitutions without constitutionalism” or a contradictory concept. Rather than proposing a single, proper sense of (liberal) constitutionalism, the articles explore a plurality of constitutional theories, practices and documents. They cover a broad spectrum of authoritarian styles of governing that are related to quite different constitutional regimes and demonstrate that constitutions – their rhetoric and texts, doctrines and practices, symbolic and instrumental purposes – are part and parcel of what has been called the “culture of authoritarianism.”

The authors argue that constitutionalism not only covers a plurality of different constitutional regimes but also economic orders and cultural forms. Within different global contexts, they discuss crucial features of political authoritarianism, such as modalities of participation, techniques of governance and legitimation, the forms of communication between rulers and ruled, the temporality, iconography, and performance of constitutional authority, the deep connections between constitutionalism, nationalism, and capitalism, as well as the virtues and vices of paradigmatic liberal democratic theories of constitutionalism.  The objective throughout is to develop and apply critical tools for the study of AC in diverse institutional settings and regions of the world from Argentina to the US, Hungary to South Africa, Syria and Turkey to Singapore and Japan.

The authors were not guided by an authoritative (authoritarian?) concept of constitutionalism. They basically agreed to operate with a very broad understanding that was to allow for a combination of constitutional theory and practice, and should encompass the dimensions of ideas (agenda, program, ideology), rhetoric and institutions (governance/authority, accountability), which jointly characterize constitutional documents as ways of imagining the real. The openness encouraged an internal debate among the authors about constitutionalism. More importantly, it fostered the analysis, in comparative perspective, of very different constitutional strategies – comprising the forms of meticulous adherence to a constitution whose terms directly and unequivocally subordinate the liberties of citizens to an oppressive conception of the public order and security, forms of constitutional opportunism and the reduction of constitutions to mere documents of political-social development. The studies show that AC taps a diversity of liberal and a-liberal, normative traditions and sources and can be linked to the service of different general purposes: the constitution as a manual of governance, showcase, identity card and agenda for collective mobilization – depending on whether office-holders hijacked the institutions of a fairly democratic system and transformed it according to their nationalist or chauvinist agenda on the basis of an electoral victory; or whether AC is installed by a military regime aided by the police and secret services or is preceded by a coup; whether it develops incrementally under the guise of a “regular” liberal-democratic government, etc.

Posted by Professor Günter Frankenberg, Goethe University in Frankfurt/Main, Germany