June 30, 2014

Asia’s tryst with constitutionalism

Constitutional breakdowns are indicators of political instability. Political stability, however, by no means is any guarantee for individual liberties.

The recent coup d’état in Thailand has reinvigorated the discussion on what causes political instability in nation-states. A few questions emerge: Why is it that some nation-states see frequent coups or extended application of martial laws and emergencies? Is there a common string that runs through nation-states which are susceptible to repeated episodes of political turmoil?

A good proxy for measuring an abstract concept like political turmoil is the degree of adherence to a constitution which codifies the law of the land. Attempts at replacing the fundamental characters of the constitution are indicative of political instability. A politically unstable nation-state, which is frequently indulged in codifying the law of the land is less likely to dedicate the collective energies of its citizens to other pursuits like economic growth and cultural, social or political development.


This infographic surveys the constitutional history of Asian nation-states to explore the trends in  their political stability. The first figure shows the number of constitutions since independence for each of the Asian nation-states. The horizontal axis for the plot is the year of independence for each of the nations. The methodology employed to collect this data was to study each nation-state’s constitutional history and count the number of times that the constitution was undermined or replaced with a new one. In this study, a constitutional change was taken to be a structural change, i.e. amendments to constitution are not considered as drastic replacements to existing constitutions.

The points on this graph can be clearly divided into three categories. The first category is that of nation-states which got their independence before World War II. They are referred to as “the former kingdoms”. This category of nation-states has had a strong inclination towards changing constitutions. All the countries in this group with the exception of Turkey were former empires that became non-democratic constitutional monarchies in the first half of the 20th century. Turkey adopted a democratic constitution under the military leader and statesman Mustafa Kemal Ataturk but soon became a single-party state within a span of three years after becoming a republic. A possible hypothesis is that since all these countries made only cosmetic changes in their constitutions by retaining a strong monarchy,  they underwent several rounds of constitutional changes as waves of democracy and communism swept the world in the mid-twentieth century.

The second category comprises of the outlier – Thailand which has had exceptional disregard to its Constitution surpassing all other nation-states. Like the first category of nation-states, it achieved independence before World War II and saw repeated constitutional changes. However, the politically active military, a lingering monarchy and an aspiration for democracy has resulted in a peculiar situation where Constitution has undergone major changes for an unprecedented 17 times.

The third group of interest is the one marked in green and referred to as the “merge-split” nation states. Some of these nations like Yemen and UAE were formed by merging two or more territories. The others in the category were born out of a split of untenable states like the USSR and pre-1971 Pakistan. These nation-states, in their short independent existence have been able to avoid drastic changes in their constitutions.

The fourth category comprise of the heavily clustered zone between 1945 and 1960. This group has been referred to as the “Independence era states” which overthrew European colonialism to establish new nation-states. These states have further been zoomed-in in the second figure.


The trajectory of transfer of power in these countries was from kingdoms to European colonialists to groups that led the anti-colonial resistance. Many countries in this group have largely had one or two constitutions. A possible hypothesis for this observation is that the nation-states which secured independence after WW II were formed out of strong anti-colonial revolutions. The nationalists from these countries had precedents of how constitutions worked in their European sovereigns. And by incorporating some elements of these constitutions, they were able to survive longer. However, some of the nations in this group which have either had politically active militaries or communist allegiances have seen some breakdowns in their constitutions.

In summary, constitutional breakdowns are indicators of political instability. Political stability, however, by no means is any guarantee for individual liberties. At the same time, a politically stable state is better positioned to secure its interests vis-a-vis other geopolitical actors.

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