Study title
Constitutional conventions, direct democracy and institutional change
Ref study 9748
Study language English
Contributing institutions
  • Direct democracy
  • Conflict resolution
  • Constitutions
  • Institutional change
  • Constitutional conventions
Geographical space
Constitutional conventions are specialized institutional bodies, elected or appointed, that are mandated for writing a new constitution or amending an existing constitution of a given state or state-like entity. The aim of this research is to measure and to compare the relationship between constitutional conventions, direct democracy and institutional change and to evaluate the specific conflict resolution capacity of constitutional conventions. The first part of the research will present a broad overview of constitutional conventions throughout time (history) and space (countries, constituent entities), relating their composition, mandate and activity. Although basically descriptive, this kind of mapping of the phenomenon is not without interest, as constitutional conventions have literally spread among all continents in the most various circumstances. This part of the research will be integrated into the database of the Research Centre on Direct Democracy (c2d) ( Part II studies the links between constitutional conventions and direct democracy. It is a historical fact that many devices of direct democracy have been conceived or fostered by constitutional conventions. Thus, the constitutional referendum is a direct result of the New England constitutional conventions of the 1770s, which stand at the very origin of modern constitutionalism. In Switzerland, during the 1830s, a series of constitutional conventions forced upon the rulers of that time the adoption of direct democracy devices like the legislative referendum, the popular initiative and the recall, which have strongly favoured the development of direct democracy on the federal government level. The development of direct democracy in Latin America during the last fifteen years is widely but not exclusively, due to constitutional assemblies. This central part of the research can be seen as a continuation of a series of previous research projects pursued by the c2d since 1993. Part III will entirely focus on the unique experience of the two European Conventions by which the European Union has tried to bridge its democratic deficit. The 1999 Convention that drafted the Charter on Fundamental Rights and the 2002/2003 Convention for Europe, which produced the Constitutional Treaty, deserve special attention as they operated for the first time in history on a supranational level. The conventions will be scrutinized as to their relationship with democracy and, in this respect, compared with the national or subnational experiences listed in part I. Finally, the last part opens the perspective to the social and political science arena by examining constitutional conventions as a means of conflict resolution. Typically, constitutional conventions are established for preserving or creating a given order of civil government in a context of crisis. Under what circumstances are they established? To what extent and under what conditions do conventions succeed? Why do they fail? What are the specific communicative processes that play a role at this highest possible level of government? How does the subsequent referendum affect these processes? This part concludes with inside remarks concerning ongoing experiences with constitutional conventions in Cyprus, Nepal and the canton of Geneva.
Methods (description)
Like all researches undertaken so far by the c2d, this project combines methods of law and political science. The legal analysis is predominant in parts I and II. However, the classic methods of legal interpretation will not be used very often, as constitutional conventions hardly ever give rise to a significant body of statute and case law. This is precisely one of the reasons why conventions are such a fascinating object of scientific curiosity. As the objective is not to study the product, i.e. constitutions, but specific processes, it is more a study of institutional change than of constitutional law. Through the use and comparison of different historic documents, records, minutes, accounts, media reports and the like the phenomenon can be surrounded and hopefully brought nearer. The greatest methodological difficulty lies in the complexity of comparison between literally hundreds of constitutional conventions from 1778 to this day, in probably several dozens states and state like entities. Part II relating to direct democracy poses no specific methodological problems, as the c2d database is already well furnished with all kinds of data in this respect.
The political science methods will basically rest on analysis of the decision making processes that lead to constitutional convention, that are central to the debates within these conventions and that follow the conclusion of these debates in the process of ratification by the people or another state organ. Again, a simplified APES (actor - process - event) scheme will be applied1. Part IV uses the traditional methods of conflict resolution studies.

Erhebungsverfahren: Inhaltsanalyse offen, Akten- und Dokumentenanalyse offen, Experiment Quasi Experiment
Methods (instruments)
Replicated study No
Financed by
Ethical approval No
Study type
Data availability
Source (Updates) SNSF
Date created 18.06.2009
Date modified 18.06.2009
Start - End date 01.07.2008 - 28.06.2010