2nd Melbourne Forum on Constitutional-Building Co-Hosted by the Program on Social and Political Change

The Constitution-Building Program of the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) and Melbourne Law School’s Constitution Transformation Network held the Second Melbourne Forum on Constitution Building in Asia and the Pacific last October 3 and 4. The forum explored the theme From Big Bang to Incrementalism: Choices and Challenges in Constitution Building. This year, the Forum was hosted by the University of the Philippines Diliman Department of Political Science and the Program on Social and Political Change of the UP Center for Integrative and Development Studies (UP CIDS).

The Forum brought together academics and practitioners from across the Asia-Pacific and Latin American regions to share their experiences in constitution building in their respective polities. This year, it aimed to enhance understanding on constitutional change through collaboration as the insights gathered from the case study countries will foster in depth discussions on the relative magnitude of constitutional change and its varied executions. Furthermore, it identified issues that inform constitution-building and constitution-thinking especially within a diverse and rich region as the Asia-Pacific.

Organized into five sessions exploring themes on the process and substance of constitution-building, each session begins with each presenter giving short country case studies and providing key insights offered by their experiences. After these presentations, the latter part of the session opens the floor for questions and discussions involving the participants.

The first session discussed the making a new constitution, factors that have influenced the decision, and the different techniques adopted by the country case studies. Representatives from the Philippines, Maldives, and Thailand talked about their countries’ experiences (or potential in Chile’s case) in crafting a new constitution.

The second session tackled cases in which constitutional amendment was preferred to crafting a new constitution. In these cases, the circumstances that dictated this decision, the consequences of such a decision, and the magnitude of constitutional change it has brought was discussed. The panel for this session composed of representatives from Indonesia, Taiwan, Pakistan, and Argentina.

The last session for the forum’s first day expounded on the substance of constitutional change, specifically moving between a presidential and parliamentary system. The cases of Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, South Korea, and Sri Lanka showed the issues that could lead to states shifting from one form of government to another and how the design and implementation depends on the local historical, cultural, political, and economic context.

Cases of countries that moved or plan to move from a unitary state to a federal/devolved state started off the forum’s second day. Actions made by Nepal, Myanmar, Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea to shift to federalism or increase the degree of devolution in their country were driven by the call for self-determination by ethnic minorities. Difficulties in ensuring equality in the distribution of power and resources between center and periphery proved to be challenges in these cases as well as the importance of compromise for all parties involved.

The fifth session of the forum discussed cases where countries have decided not to defer or postpone constitutional change in light of controversial issues. Deferral or postponement of constitution building in India, Fiji, Bougainville, and Iraq were caused by matters of religion, ethnicity, cultural practices, peace issues, and independence

The forum’s final session provided an opportunity for participants to reflect on international institutions, such as the United Nations (UN), and their supportive role in constitution building. For the UN, in conflict prevention and peace-making, constitutional causes need constitutional responses. While it is recognized that the UN has its limitations, the speakers emphasized the importance of the active participation of member states in the UN to empower its efficacy.

Insights were also raised regarding choices on the magnitude of constitutional change that would inform future initiatives in the Philippines and the Asia-Pacific. As the Philippines is currently considering significant constitutional change with its plan to transition to federalism, private citizens are in a dilemma. The need for constitutional reform is palpable but whether the time is right for genuine reform under the current administration remains in question. Nevertheless, the Forum concluded that genuine reform at the constitutional moment must be citizen-led. It ended on a note that encouraged better articulation of the reform project and the issues surrounding it to increase public participation.

These two days of the Melbourne Forum opened up avenues for discourse on the range of techniques and the variety of causes for constitutional change. This forum distinguished itself as an opportunity for regional neighbors in Asia-Pacific and beyond to engage in international dialogue and to apply the understanding gained from comparative knowledge.