What is a Constitution?
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What is a Constitution?


Ok, so before we talk about “what a constitution is” let’s first explain why we need one Let’s start by looking at the fundamental things we all need as human beings These are: A VOICE in the decisions that affect our lives MATERIAL WELL-BEING, such as food, shelter and education SECURITY and PROTECTION from violence or discrimination, and RECOGNITION and RESPECT as individuals and communities To help meet these needs people create governments and delegate powers to them, to exercise for the common good of society The problem, though, is that while governments need powers to be able to perform their functions history tells us – again and again that power without limits can lead to corruption, dictatorship and oppression Free, fair and regular elections might help ensure good government They allow people to select who they want in the power and, over time, to vote out those who perform badly But we also need some basic rules to control how that power is used so that those who win elections still have to espect your rights and promote your interests rather than using power for their own benefit Just as in a game of football there have to be rules and a referee so in a democracy there must be rules by which all the players are bound These rules are provided in a Constitution The Constitution is a law – but it’s not just an ordinary law A Constitution is a supreme law that establishes, organizes and empowers the government and determines how other laws are madeand implemented It is also more difficult to change than ordinary laws so that those in power cannot make up the rules as they go along Football wouldn’t be fair if the winning team could change the rules and democracy isn’t fair if those in power can just change the constitution according to their own whim The constitution harnesses the energy and power of the state making sure the people keep control of the reins This explains why when people are trying to establish a new, fairer society one of the first things they do is to write a new Constitution This is what Norway did in 1814 India in 1950 South Africa in 1996 and Columbia in 1991 Indeed, nearly all countries in the worlduse a Constitution to establish rules for using power On the other hand, we have seen that when a democratic government is illegally overthrown one of the first things the coup leaders dois set their sights on destroying the Constitution They don’t want any inconvenient limits on their ability to rule by force So, the Constitution both organizes and constrains power Now, how does it do that? Well, there are several ways One way is to divide it between different political institutions for example, sharing functions between a president and a prime minister or between two houses of a legislature or between different levels of government: the national level, the regional state or provincial level, and the local level A constitution defines the powers of these institutions and regulates the relationship between them It also ensures that power is rotated one year, we may vote for one candidate or party but after a few years their time will be up and we will have the opportunity to choose someone else This means that no one person, party or institution can accumulate too much power or stay in power too long It is important to maintain a strict separation between the political institutions on the one hand such as the elected parliament and government and, on the other hand, the permanent, neutral institutions of the state such as the courts, the military, the police, and the civil service Constitutions also constrain power by saying what governments must and must not do For example, a set of constitutional rights may specify that you can’t be tortured, that you can’t be imprisoned without due cause and that your freedom of expression can’t be infringed Other provisions may direct the government to provide for basic human needs such as education, healthcare, sanitation or housing Constitutions don’t only protect the majority There may be special provisions for minorities and marginalized groups for their security, their participation in government and protections for their identity and culture Most constitutions also have a nation-building function They seek to embody national unity and to reflect and declare the identity of the nation and its people The constitution announces – to citizens, to the government itself, and to the outside world what the nation IS, what it stands for, where it has come from and what its vision for the future might be A good Constitution is just one step along the road to a peaceful, prosperous and democratic society. But it is a fundamental one By setting down the rules by which the state should be governed a good Constitution helps to ensure that the democratic aspirations of a people become, and remain, a reality.

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