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Book Review: Andrew Roberts on Anna Fruhstorfer and Michael Hein’s “Constitutional Politics in Central and Eastern Europe: From Post-Socialist Transition to the Reform of Political Systems”

[Editor’s Note: In this installment of I•CONnect’s Book Review Series, Andrew Roberts reviews Anna Fruhstorfer and Michael Hein’s book on Constitutional Politics in Central and Eastern Europe: From Post-Socialist Transition to the Reform of Political Systems (Springer 2016)]

Andrew Roberts, Northwestern University

The fall of communism gave rise to a wave of theorizing about constitutionalism. Western experts rushed in to help advise these countries on their new constitutions and these efforts received institutional support in the form of the Venice Commission founded by the Council of Europe and the Center for the Study of Constitutionalism in Eastern Europe at the University of Chicago. Luminaries like Cass Sunstein, Jon Elster, Adam Przeworski, and Stephen Holmes were among those thinking deeply about how constitutional politics in the region should and would evolve.

Yet, by the late 1990s, this interest had peaked and attention turned to other topics. It seemed that the Western part of the region had become stable democracies while much of the post-Soviet sphere was populated by incorrigible autocracies. The days when constitutions mattered seemed to have passed.

The volume under review here makes the case that constitutional politics still matters.

The argument is clearest in places like Croatia, Slovakia, Romania, Ukraine, and especially Hungary that have what the authors call an active amendment culture and where constitutions continue to be drastically rewritten and not always in a liberal and democratic spirit. Even in countries with more restrained constitutional politics, important changes have been afoot, for example, in several successful attempts to restrict marriage to unions between a man and a woman.

The main contribution of the volume under review is a series of to the point essays on constitutional politics in twenty postcommunist countries. It is to the editors’ credit that all of the contributors adhere to the same format in describing how the constitution was adopted and the background and course of every successful constitutional amendment along with unsuccessful amendments. The last is a real novelty and deserves further analysis.

In terms of substantive findings, it is interesting to consider the main types of amendments common in the region. Compared to the US experience, where almost all amendments have concerned issues of rights and very few have altered institutions, structural changes are relatively common in Central and Eastern Europe. The judiciary in particular has received considerable attention often in response to worries about corruption and rule of law, but executive-legislative relations have not stood still. The immunity of politicians, ethnic issues, and international integration are other areas that have inspired constitution change.

The editors’ assessment of these changes is that they are “best described as mediocre”, but this judgment masks wide variations. In some places, like Poland, amendments “corrected and improved the institutional conditions for policymaking”. In others, changes have been a double-edged sword, sometimes promoting democracy and liberalism and other times destabilizing democracy and entrenching powerful actors, for example, in Hungary, Croatia, or Albania. In less democratic states, the amendment process has been mostly negative. While the editors refer to different constitutional cultures, it appears that at times constitutional politics follows broader political trends and at other times it helps to inaugurate a new politics, especially where external pressure was strong.

Though the volume does not add much new in the way of theory or results, it does provide a real public service in its clear presentation of systematic and contextualized information. The editors take advantage of some of the comparative data to try to explain the frequency of amendments in the region and consider some of the reasons for the success and failure of amendments and whether constitutional politics is different in democracies and autocracies or is affected by external factors, but there is much material here that could still be mined for insights.

Among the questions that other scholars might pursue with the data in this volume are the degree to which amendments were consensual (how far above the bar for amendment were the majorities achieved), the parts of constitutions which were most frequently amended, and the nature of failed amendments. Though the authors are skeptical that quantitative analysis will get us very far (their own analysis yields few positive results), this should be taken more as a challenge than a conclusion.

For those with an appetite for trustworthy and comprehensive facts and interpretations about how constitutions have evolved in the region, this volume is unparalleled. And despite its nearly 600 pages, it is remarkably free of filler and is clearly written, providing just enough context for those new to the region to find their way. It is a shame that similar compilations do not exist for other regions.

Suggested Citation: Andrew Roberts, Review of Anna Fruhstorfer and Michael Hein’s “Constitutional Politics in Central and Eastern Europe: From Post-Socialist Transition to the Reform of Political Systems”, Int’l J. Const. L. Blog, July 21, 2017, at: http://www.iconnectblog.com/2017/07/roberts-on-hein-and-fruhstorfer

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Published on July 21, 2017
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