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Political Science in Europe

Constitutional Origins of Asian Nations

Comparative Perspective
Kenneth McElwain
University of Tokyo
Kenneth McElwain
University of Tokyo

Almost all nations in the world today—whether democratic or autocratic—have written constitutions. That said, the exact content of constitutional provisions remains diverse, and this is particularly true for the first constitutions ratified after independence. This paper examines the determinants of constitutional variety based on three pathways of constitutional “mimicry”. First, newly independent states frequently borrow rights and institutions from former colonizers, creating a “historical” clustering from older to newer constitutions. Second, countries tend to borrow from their neighbors’ constitutions, creating “geographical” clustering. Third, national independence movements often happen in waves, creating “temporally” clustered constitutions that are influenced by global norms similarly. I argue that by examining the first constitutions adopted in Asia—East, Southeast, and South—after independence, we can disaggregate the salience of historical, geographical, and temporal clustering. First, there is a diversity of colonizers in the region, including the UK, France, the Netherlands, the United States, Portugal, Spain, and Japan. Second, many Asian nations were colonized more than once, giving them a broader “menu” of precedent to choose from. Third, the timing of the first constitution varies greatly, from Japan in 1889, South Korea in 1948, Malaysia in 1957, to East Timor in 2002. Using data from the Comparative Constitutions Project, I compare the provisions of the first constitution in Asian states to every other contemporaneous country in the world, producing a “similarity” score. I then estimate the determinants of similarity, using geographical proximity, time period, and colonial history as predictors. I complement this statistical analysis with brief case studies of constitution-making, looking at the “most similar” and “most different” pairs of constitutions by geography, time, and colonial history.
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