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Political Science in Europe

Imperative Mandates: Prospects for Democratic Accountability

Political Theory
Bruno Leipold
Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universität Frankfurt
Bruno Leipold
Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universität Frankfurt

Imperative mandates legally bind representatives to the instructions of their constituents. They have largely been forgotten in contemporary constitutional theory and are banned in, for example, the French and German constitutions. But there was a long popular republican tradition that advocated their inclusion in democratic constitutions as an essential element in keeping representatives accountable to the people who elected them. That tradition can be partly traced back to Rousseau, who in his Considerations on the Government of Poland argued that representation and freedom could be reconciled if representatives were forced to carry out the 'fixed instructions' of constituents. We also find imperative mandates defended amongst the more radical republican elements of the French Revolution, such as by Jean-François Varlet and the sans-culottes. Imperative mandates later re-emerged in the period after the Paris Commune and the constituent period of the Third French Republic, which saw a flurry of pamphlets by radical republicans seeking its inclusion in the new constitution.
This paper unearths this historical tradition and considers what resources it provides for contemporary constitutional thought. It sets the variety of different conceptions of the imperative mandate, ranging from limited ones where constituents have the option to give representatives binding instructions on certain issues to more comprehensive ones where all issues are covered by such instructions. I argue that the limited conception could be largely incorporated within the constitutions of existing liberal representative democracies, but that a similar increase in accountability could also be achieved through other mechanisms, such as giving constituents the right to immediately recall their representatives. I further argue that the more comprehensive conception of imperative mandates could not be incorporated within liberal representative democracies (at least as they are usually understood), and would instead require popular or participatory democratic ones, where federated assemblies give binding instructions to delegates.
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