At its most basic, a constitution is an instrument that embodies the rules of a social, legal or political organization. It can be viewed as a contract between the people and the government. Typically, constitutions contain the basic laws and principles of nations, social groups, or states. These instruments also determine the duties and powers of those in office and safeguard the rights of the people. As with other different aspects that define nations, there are various types of constitutions in different parts of the world.
What types of constitutions exist and what defines them?
The different types of constitutions
How many types of constitutions are there? Here is a look at the different types of constitutions that exist in various nations worldwide.
Written and unwritten constitutions
An unwritten constitution is not contained in a single document and can exist partly in word and partly in writing. Such a constitution grows from years of experience and the political behaviour of people. The best example of this is the British constitution. It does not exist in one document but can be found in judicial decisions, conventions, and statutes.
On the other hand, a written constitution is among the three main types of constitutions and is contained in a single document and can be easily consulted on pretty much every issue contained therein. Typically, this type of law is rigid but can still be amended when necessary.
Merits of a written constitution
Here are the main advantages and disadvantages of a written constitution.
- It is very definite, removing any drawbacks that uncertainties can bring about.
- Since it is drawn after long and elaborate deliberations, this type of constitution is based on knowledge and experience and not emotions and hastily-made decisions.
- It protects the rights of individuals since those in power cannot easily change them.
- It is among the most stable law structure and is best suited for an emergency period in a country.
- For federal governments, a written constitution provides for the separation of central and federal power.
Demerits of a written constitution
- It is quite difficult to amend, making it too rigid.
- Some clauses in such documents depend on the judicial interpretation that, at times, might not be ideal.
- It encompasses a nation’s entire rules and ideals, a factor that might be less than ideal for some ages.
- It can be too exhaustive.
Merits of an unwritten constitution
Here are the main advantages and disadvantages of an unwritten constitution.
- It is easily adaptable to a country’s changing circumstances. Laws can be added or removed as necessary.
- It easily safeguards the traditions of a country.
Demerits of an unwritten constitution
- It has been criticized as being vague and indefinite. The ordinary person cannot refer to any particular document to understand governance.
- At times, unwritten laws can result in considerable instability.
- The judiciary tends to overplay its role in a country governed by an unwritten law.
- It is said that such a constitution is not ideal for a democracy.
Presidential and parliamentary constitution
A presidential constitution is one in which all the executive powers are vested in the country’s president, who serves as the head of government and the head of state. The president then has the liberty to exercise his powers directly or through his deputy president, cabinet secretaries, or other officers.
A parliamentary constitution is one in which the executive powers are vested in a prime minister who is the head of government and the head of the majority party. However, he is not the head of state.
Merits of a presidential constitution
Here are the main pros and cons of a presidential constitution.
- There is a clear separation of powers among the executive, legislature, and judiciary.
- It provides for the formation of an expert government since those appointed to office do not necessarily have to be part of the legislature.
- There is less influence from the party system.
- Since the president’s tenure is fixed, the country has more stability since it is highly unlikely to have an unplanned shift in power.
Demerits of a presidential constitution
- It can result in an irresponsible executive arm of government. This happens because the executive is not answerable to the legislature.
- There can often be deadlocks between the legislature and the executive.
- The president has sweeping powers, a factor that may give rise to patronage when they appoint their close friends to powerful positions.
- The president’s fixed tenure can result in a rigid government.
Merits of a parliamentary constitution
Here are the main pros and cons of a parliamentary constitution.
- There is better coordination between the legislature and the executive.
- A parliamentary government is, in most cases, more responsible than a presidential government.
- It results in flexibility since the prime minister can be easily ousted from power.
- Demerits parliamentary constitution
- There lacks a true separation of power in this system. As a result, the legislature cannot blame the executive for the non-implementation of the nation’s policies.
- At times, the country might find itself with a highly unqualified legislature.
- The system is not very stable since the prime minister does not have a fixed term.
Republican and monarchical constitution
A republican constitution provides for the position of a head of state, typically elected by the people for a fixed term in office. In most cases, the head of state is known as the president. On the other hand, a monarchical one provides for a government led by an emperor, king, or queen.
The head of government in a monarchy is usually succeeded by his or her child, and this goes on from generation to generation. There are different types of constitutions under the monarchical setup.
- Absolute monarch: This is one in which the monarch has absolute powers of governance. Historical examples include Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, Czar Nicholas II of Russia, and the former Shah of Iran, Reza Palavi.
- Constitutional monarch: The monarch is a somewhat ceremonial head of state and a symbol of the nation.
Merits of a monarchical constitution
Here are the main upsides and downsides of a monarchical constitution.
- Since the head of state remains in power for a long time, countries under such laws tend to remain quite stable.
- The future head of state is usually well prepared since they are prepared from birth.
- Since the monarch is not a politician, they can remain neutral on matters that otherwise cause divisions.
- There are no elections costs in monarchs.
- Advocates of this type of law argue that it results in less corruption since the person in power does not need to loot as much as possible before their term ends.
Disadvantages of a constitutional monarchy
- There is no democracy in a monarch since the head of state is not elected. Therefore, the people have little to no say on matters of whoever governs the country.
- Not all monarchs are competent leaders. While they can be equipped with the necessary skills for many years, it does not necessarily mean that the person has the inborn will to lead people.
- Monarchs can easily impose their personal beliefs and preferences on the people.
- Royal families in monarchs lead very expensive lifestyles that could burden the citizens.
- Critics of this system argue that it results in more corruption since the justice system often overlooks the atrocities committed by royal families.
Merits of a republican constitution
Here are the main advantages and disadvantages of a republican constitution.
- A republican constitution is representative since leaders are elected through the will of the people.
- Having representatives makes government more efficient, resulting in faster and better implementation of the people’s will.
- A republican system is democratic since people elect their rulers and can question them or vote them out.
- It protects the people’s rights through law and order.
Disadvantages of a republican constitution
- The constitution can be quite expensive to implement, especially when it comes to electing people into office.
- Such systems seem to work best in small nations and communities.
- Bills passed by the country’s legislative arm need to undergo numerous processes before becoming law. This process results in unnecessary delays that do not exist in other forms of constitutions, such as monarchs.
- The law provides for the existence of numerous political parties. This provision often results in highly contested elections, a potential trigger for violence and rebellion.
- In countries with low literacy levels and poor education systems, politicians can easily deceive the masses to get into power.
The word democracy is derived from two Greek words, ‘demos’ and ‘kratia.’ The former means people while the latter means government or rule. Democracy, therefore, loosely translates to the people’s rule. The democratic constitution provides for the people’s participation in government either directly or through elected representatives.
Conventionally, a democratic government should reflect the people’s generality and must be created and installed by the people.
Advantages of a democratic constitution
Here are the main advantages and disadvantages of a democratic constitution.
- Democracies tend to be more accountable to the people. This is especially true when people elect suitable leaders who represent their interests.
- The law improves the overall quality of decision making.
- There are laid down procedures for dealing with conflicts and differences.
Disadvantages of a democratic constitution
- Most times, democracies turn into competitions for power play, completely disregarding morality.
- The bureaucracy in democracies leads to unnecessary delays in decision making.
- Democracies often have high levels of corruption since they are primarily based on electoral competition.
Unitary and federal constitutions
A unitary constitution provides for government power to be vested in a single central government. This central body does not share its power but can delegate it to subordinate bodies such as local and regional governments.
On the other hand, a federal one provides for an association of states in which power is shared. Unlike the unitary system, the country’s power is shared among local, state, and federal bodies. Each body exercises its assigned functions and powers.
Advantages of a unitary constitution
Here are the main pros and cons of a unitary constitution.
- In a unitary system, the people only owe their allegiance to one central body of power. This can result in improved national unity.
- The system is excellent for countries that occupy significantly small areas.
- The system is considerably cheaper to run since there are not many bodies that require funding from the central government.
- It allows for extremely quick decision making.
- Development tends to be even across the entire nation since the central government is responsible for developing every part of the country.
Disadvantages of a unitary constitution
- The people can experience slow government response on matters such as defence and emergencies. This happens because all resources have to be mobilized by the national government.
- The burden of work can become quite heavy for those in government.
- Unitary systems can easily evolve into dictatorships.
- Areas neglected for political reasons can be left out of development agendas.
- Under a unitary system, most people look up to the government to initiate and implement development initiatives, a fact that could stifle local initiatives.
Advantages of a federal constitution
Here are the main advantages and disadvantages of a federal constitution.
- In a federal system, a person can compare political, social, and economic systems in different states and relocate to one they find more suitable. In addition, this system recognizes a citizen’s right to exit a state.
- The system allows economic, social, and political experimentation since power is shared across different states.
- This system works great for extremely large countries such as the USA and Australia.
- The laws are accommodative to cultural and economic differences across different states.
- Federations tend to be more democratic since leaders are answerable at multiple levels, not only the top government.
- The division of powers in this system hampers the potential rise of despotic rulers, protecting the people’s liberty.
- The law makes it easier to make decisions since the people can supervise government at different levels.
Disadvantages a federal constitution
- The system can result in significant economic disparities across states. This results from a phenomenon known as race-to-the-bottom in which states compete to attract investments by lowering taxes. Eventually, state-centred decisions overtake national interests.
- This type of constitution is unsuitable for tiny countries.
Flexible and rigid constitution
A flexible constitution is one that can be easily changed or amended without the need for a cumbersome process. The laws contained in it can be amended as simply as one would amend a statute, with a simple majority vote in parliament.
On the other hand, a rigid constitution has elaborate, and at times cumbersome, procedures that govern any amendments. Such procedures often involve a two-thirds vote in parliament, popular vote by the people or ratification through a referendum.
Advantages of a flexible constitution
Here are the main ups and downs of a flexible constitution.
- It can be amended with the same ease in which statutes and ordinary laws are. This makes it easier to adapt the laws to the people’s or country’s changing needs.
- The laws, in this case, are quite elastic, drastically reducing the chances of a revolution by the people. On the other hand, in rigid constitutions, people can easily feel that the current laws do not address their needs and turn to revolutions to get their way.
- This type of constitution is excellent for a country’s development since it can easily factor in the country’s evolution in terms of technology, education, politics, and social factors. Moreover, the document is premised on the idea that there can never be a perfect set of laws applicable at all times. It, therefore, leaves room for possible changes.
- The laws reflect a nation’s historical continuity.
Disadvantages of a flexible constitution
- Due to its overly flexible nature, the rules in this constitution keep on changing. This could end up being done to satisfy the needs of those in power, completely disregarding the minorities.
- It can easily result in administrative instability.
- When the amendment procedure is too simple, the laws can be overly influenced by popular passion. The downside is that popular passion is influenced by emotion, not reason. Therefore, relying on the popular passion for amending the country’s laws can result in disharmony and imbalance.
- It is unsuitable for a country premised on a federal system.
Advantages of a rigid constitution
Here are the main ups and downs of a rigid constitution.
- It is premised on stability and performance. Such constitutions are written with the combined knowledge and experience of learned people, resulting in improved efficiency.
- It safeguards people’s rights against legislative encroachment.
- It protects the rights of the minority through judicial systems.
- It is free from the perils of temporary popular passion. Moreover, due to the cumbersome amendment procedures, the laws are less prone to changes resulting from people’s emotions.
Disadvantages of a rigid constitution
- At times, amendments are extremely necessary. Unfortunately, in such a scenario, a rigid set of laws make it very difficult to institute the necessary changes.
- Rigid laws are unsuitable for progressive nations in which amendments happen frequently.
- Under such a law, the judiciary’s main role is only to see whether the law conforms to the provisions of the constitutions. This might result in the abandonment of more pressing issues, especially in highly progressive countries.
The different types of constitutions have their merits and demerits and instances in which they are best suited. To date, none seems overly superior to the other, as proven by the existence of the different types in various countries worldwide.
DISCLAIMER: This article is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional advice or help and should not be relied on to make decisions of any kind. Any action you take upon the information presented in this article is strictly at your own risk and responsibility!
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