Constitutional crisis

Last updated on 19 May 2017

A constitutional crisis is a situation which a legal system's constitution or other basic principle of operation appears unable to resolve; it often results in a breakdown in the orderly operation of government. Often, generally speaking, a constitutional crisis is a situation in which separate factions within a government disagree about the extent to which each of these factions hold sovereignty. Most commonly, constitutional crises involve some degree of conflict between different branches of government (e.g., executive, legislature, and/or judiciary), or between different levels of government in a federal system (e.g., state and federal governments).

A constitutional crisis may occur because one or more parties to the dispute willfully choose to violate a provision of a constitution or an unwritten constitutional convention, or it may occur when the disputants disagree over the interpretation of such a provision or convention. If the dispute arises because some aspect of the constitution is ambiguous or unclear, the ultimate resolution of the crisis often establishes a precedent for the future. For instance, the United States Constitution is silent on the question of whether states may secede from the Union; however, after the secession of several states was forcibly prevented in the American Civil War, it has become generally accepted that states cannot leave the Union.

A constitutional crisis is distinct from a rebellion, which is defined as when factions outside of a government challenge that government's sovereignty, as in a coup or revolution led by the military or civilian protesters.

A constitutional crisis can lead to government paralysis, collapse, or civil war.


Democratic Republic of the Congo

Patrice Lumumba

The Gambia


  • A constitutional crisis occurred in Malawi in 2012 with regard to the succession of Bingu wa Mutharika. The President and Vice-President were from different parties which led to deliberations over who the rightful successor would be and the constitutional crisis. Vice-President Joyce Banda eventually succeeded wa Mutharika.


South Africa

  • The Coloured vote constitutional crisis (1951–55): The National Party government disputed a court decision overturning its act to disenfranchise Coloured voters. Its attempt to reverse the decision in an ad hoc court was also overturned, after which the party used reforms to the Senate to pass the measure legally.





  • Supreme Court Chief Justice Sajjad Ali Shah clashed repeatedly with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in late 1997, accusing him of undermining the court's independence. After Ali Shah suspended a constitutional amendment that prevented dismissal of the prime minister, Sharif ordered President Farooq Leghari to appoint a new chief justice. When Leghari refused, Sharif considered impeaching him, but backed down after a warning from the armed forces. Faced with a choice of accepting Sharif's demands or dismissing him, Leghari resigned. Ali Shah resigned shortly afterward, establishing Sharif's dominance.


  • In March 2006, 60 seats of the National Assembly of Thailand could not be elected, and Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra refused to resign. The judicial system did not lead up to Supreme Court as the top arbitrator so there were inconsistent rulings from the civil, criminal, administrative, and constitutional Courts.





For events after 1707, see below.
Joao sem terra assina carta Magna.jpg
John of England signs Magna Carta. Illustration from Cassell's History of England (1902)




  • In the Weimar Republic, for several years the country was governed with the help of enabling acts and emergency decrees. The crisis became dramatic in 1932, when the Nazi Party and Communist Party of Germany had together a majority in the parliament. Any government, installed by the Reich President, was likely to be dismissed by the parliament. The crisis ended in a Nazi and conservative coalition government and then Nazi dictatorship. The Weimar constitution was not abolished but made obsolete.




  • The crossing of the Rubicon by Julius Caesar in 49 BC with his legions. This action, which had no precedent, precipitated a crisis only fully resolved in 31 BC, when Octavian defeated all his enemies to become the sole master of the Roman world.



This covers the Kingdom of Scotland, which became part of the Kingdom of Great Britain after 1707. For constitutional crises since then, see United Kingdom below.

United Kingdom

North America



United States

Electoral Commission (United States).jpg
The Electoral Commission was a panel that resolved the disputed presidential election of 1876.
  • The Stamp Act 1765, by which the British Parliament sought to tax the Thirteen Colonies, set off protests from colonial politicians against taxation without representation. Parliament continued to assert its authority in subsequent acts, throwing colonial governments into chaos and eventually leading the colonists to declare total independence from Britain.[9]
  • The Nullification Crisis of 1832, in which South Carolina declared that it would not permit collection of a federal tariff. The United States Congress eventually passed a law to authorize the President to use military force in South Carolina to enforce federal laws, as well as a revised tariff law with lower rates.[10]
  • In 1841 the death of President William Henry Harrison resulted in Vice-President John Tyler becoming President, the first vice-president to succeed to the presidency. He assumed full presidential powers, although there was doubt whether the actual office of President "devolved" upon the Vice President or merely its powers and duties. The "Tyler Precedent" governed future successions and eventually became codified in the Twenty-fifth Amendment. Some opposition "Whig" members of Congress including John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay held that Tyler should be a caretaker under the title of "Acting President". He was referred to as "His Accidency".[11] However, both houses of Congress adopted a resolution confirming that Tyler was the tenth President of the United States without any qualification. Unsuccessful amendments had been proposed in both houses to strike out the word "President" in favor of language including the term "Vice President" for such cases. Tyler had correspondence from his political opponents to the White House addressed to the "Vice President" or "Acting President" returned unopened.[12]
  • The secession of seven Southern states in 1861, which the federal government did not recognize, leading to the American Civil War.
  • 1876 presidential election: Republicans and Democrats disputed voting results in three states. An ad hoc Electoral Commission, created by Congress, voted along party lines in favor of Republican candidate Rutherford B. Hayes, who damped Southern fury by withdrawing federal troops from the South, ending Reconstruction.
  • In the Watergate scandal (1972–74), President Richard Nixon and his staff obstructed investigations into their political activities. Nixon resigned, under threat of impeachment, after the release of an audio tape showing that he had personally approved the obstruction. Congressional moves to restrain presidential authority continued for years afterward.[13][14] The dismissal of independent special prosecutor Archibald Cox, and the resignations of Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus on October 20, 1973, led to the Independent Counsel Act for a more impartial way of investigating high-level public integrity cases in the executive branch without interference from the President or other executive branch leaders. Prior to the Independent Counsel Act a Special Prosecutor was still under the authority of the President and any investigations into the executive branch could be stopped by the President by simply firing the Special Prosecutor.




New Zealand

Papua New Guinea


South America



See also


  1. ^ Hoskyns, Catherine (1968). The Congo since independence, January 1960-December, 1961.
  2. ^ "Gambian president Yahya Jammeh rejects election result". The Guardian. Reuters. 9 December 2016. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 19 January 2017.
  3. ^ "Gambia crisis: Senegal troops 'enter' to back new president". BBC. January 19, 2017. Retrieved 19 January 2017.
  4. ^ Barber, Nick (2012). The Constitutional State.
  5. ^ Monarchy of Norway#Council of State
  6. ^ Storting
  7. ^
  8. ^ Bogdanor, Vernon (1997). The Monarchy and the Constitution.
  9. ^ Dickinson, H. T. (2014). Britain and the American Revolution.
  10. ^ Ellis, Richard E. (1989). The Union at Risk: Jacksonian Democracy, States' Rights and the Nullification Crisis.
  11. ^ "John Tyler". White House. Retrieved January 3, 2017.
  12. ^ Philip Abbott (23 June 2008). Accidental Presidents: Death, Assassination, Resignation, and Democratic Succession. Springer. ISBN 978-0-230-61303-4.
  13. ^ Pohlman, Harry (2005). Constitutional Debate in Action: Governmental Powers.
  14. ^ Schudson, Michael (1992). Watergate in American Memory.
  15. ^ Acuerdo de la Cámara de Diputados sobre el grave quebrantamiento del orden constitucional y legal de la República

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