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Why Public Participation Rarely Matters: Political Parties Do

Comparative Politics
Constitutions
Political Participation
Alexander Hudson
Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity
Alexander Hudson
Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity
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Abstract

Over the past three decades, participatory methods of constitution making have gained increasing acceptance, to the point that it is almost unthinkable that a new constitution would be drafted without significant input from the public. It is especially notable that public participation now commonly occurs prior to the drafting stage, as members of the public are consulted about their views before negotiations over the text begin. Though there has been some research on the effects of participatory drafting on democratic consolidation, we still know very little about how much public participation affects the constitution (as text or in a larger sense). This article undertakes an empirical analysis of the extent to which public participation in constitution making has impacted the text in two cases noted for their high levels of participation: Brazil (1988), South Africa (1996). Analysis of these cases shows that the impacts on the constitutional text have rarely lived up to their popular billing. However, the impact has varied in systematic ways, and where the impact has been small, this has principally been due to the capacity of strong political parties to dominate the process. The theory advanced here posits that party strength (especially in terms of discipline and programmatic commitments) is the key determinant of the effectiveness of public participation. In cases where the drafting body is populated by weak parties (or has excluded parties) there is a much higher likelihood that public participation will have a meaningful impact on the constitution.