Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy
16 February 2022

Why is it so difficult to change constitutions?

The third episode of our podcast Constitutions for Democracy explores why is it so difficult to change constitutions in democratic settings.

The elaboration of new constitutions in stable and consolidated democracies is uncommon. Quite often, constitutions in force either do not regulate their replacement or put in place obstacles that make change very difficult. These difficulties in times of crises of legitimacy provide incentives for a the clash between the so called ‘popular will’ and the status quo. This represents a real contemporary challenge as recently observed in Iceland (where the attempt of a total replacement did not succeed) or Chile (where a constitutional convention is working at the time of writing). Given the relevance of the topic, the third episode of Constitutions for Democracy is devoted to explore why is it so difficult to change constitutions in democratic settings?  

In his edited book Redrafting Constitutions in Democratic Regimes, published by Cambridge University Press in 2020, Gabriel Negretto identified only 25 cases of total constitutional replacement in democracies for the period 1900 to 2015. Negretto explains his findings in this episode, pointing out that is not so strange that only few cases conducted total replacements, because the preferable option is to amend constitutions, while total replacements are often seen in exceptional situations such as decolonization, revolutions or transitions to democracy where the rule of law is broken. The democratizing effect of a replacement is conditioned by the features of the constitution-making process; it is relevant that it is developed in a plural environment, in which there is agreement on how to conduct the change, equilibrium between powers at the time of writing the new constitution and a vibrant civil society following up the process.

With the insightful comments provided by Jane Suiter, the episode also discusses the failed attempt of replacing the constitution in Iceland and the more modest and successful attempt of amending the constitution in Ireland. There, between 2008 and 2009, after an economic downturn, banking scandals, the explosion of the property bubble and many unpopular decisions affecting people’s life it was launched a citizens assembly appointed by sortition, one of the most innovative experiences with so called democratic innovations in recent times. Citizens assemblies were organised several times to discuss constitutional reforms. Suiter has carefully studied and been engaged in these processes and joins the episode to share her knowledge and reflections on the topic. Among many other issues, she compares the Icelandic and the Irish experience with particular attention to the pros and cons of including partisan actors together with “pure” citizens.


This podcast is made by the Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy and the Cost Action 17135.

Gabriel Negretto is Professor of political science at the Catholic University of Chile. He holds a Law degree from the University of Buenos Aires, and both a Master of International Affairs with specialization in Latin American Studies and a PhD in Political Science from Columbia University

Jane Suiter is Professor in the School of Communications at Dublin City University. She is the senior Research Fellow on the Irish Citizens' Assembly on gender equality and is co-PI on the Irish Citizen Assembly (2016-2018) and the Irish Constitutional Convention (2012-2014) and a founder member of We the Citizens (2011), Ireland’s first deliberative experiment.

Yanina Welp is Research Fellow at the Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy. She is also editorial coordinator at Agenda Pública and founder member of Red de Politólogas. Her main areas of study are the introduction and practices of mechanisms of direct and participatory democracy, and digital media and politics, i.e. ‘democratic innovations’.