Majority Rule/Minority Rights: Essential Principles

Essential Principles and History

“If it be admitted that a man possessing absolute power may misuse that power by
wronging his adversaries, why should not a majority be liable to the same reproach? Men do
not change their characters by uniting with one another; nor does their patience in the presence
of obstacles increase with their strength. For my own part, I cannot believe it; the power to do
everything which I should refuse to one of my equals, I will never grant to any number of them.”

Alexis de Tocqueville, “Tyranny of the Majority,” Chapter XV, Book 1, Democracy in America

Majority Rule

Democracy is defined in Webster's Encyclopedic Dictionary as:

Government by the people; a form of government in which the supreme power is vested in the
people and exercised by them either directly or through their elected agents . . . [A] state of society
characterized by nominal equality of rights and privileges.

What is left out of the dictionary definition of democracy is what constitutes “the people.” In practice, democracy is governed by its most popularly understood principle: majority rule. Namely, when something is voted on, the side with the most votes wins, whether it is an election, a legislative bill, a union-management agreement, or a shareholder motion in a corporation. The majority vote (or sometimes a plurality when there are more than two choices) decides the election or the issue. Thus, when it is said that “the people have spoken” or the “people's will should be respected,” the people are generally expressed through its majority.

Alexis De Tocqueville

The principle of majority rule has several functions. For one, it establishes a clear mechanism for making decisions. A majority of 50 percent plus one decides an issue or question. This ensures that when decisions are made more people are in favor than against.  When decisions are made by slim majorities, the outcome may seem unfair to the “near-majority” that was on the other side, but that principle of majority rule is essential both in ensuring that decisions can be made and that minorities could not prevent the majority from deciding an issue or an election. Otherwise, a minority holding economic, social, and political power would use its power to dominate the majority of the citizens, thus instituting the antithesis of democracy: minority rule.

Minority Rights I: Protecting Against Political Tyranny

Yet, majority rule cannot be the only expression of “supreme power” in a democracy. If so, as Tocqueville notes above, the majority would too easily tyrannize the minority just as a single ruler is inclined to do. Thus, while it is clear that democracy must guarantee the expression of the popular will through majority rule, it is equally clear that it must guarantee that the majority will not abuse its power to violate the basic and inalienable rights of the minority. For one, a defining characteristic of democracy is the people's right to change the majority — and the policies of government — through elections. This right is the people's supreme authority. The minority, therefore, must have the right to seek to become the majority and possess all the rights necessary to compete fairly in elections — speech, assembly, association, petition — since otherwise there would be perpetual rule and the majority would become a dictatorship. For the majority, ensuring the minority's rights is a matter of future self-interest, since it will have to utilize the same rights when it finds itself in the minority seeking again to become a majority. This holds equally true in a multiparty parliamentary democracy where no party gains a majority, since a government must still be formed in coalition by a majority of parliament members.

The Constant Threat

The American founders — Anti-Federalists and Federalists alike — considered rule by majority a troubling conundrum. Majority rule was necessary for expressing the popular will and the basis for establishing the republic. Since someone is bound to disagree on any issue, consensus cannot be the basis for making political or legislative decisions. And, by definition, minority rule is antithetical to democracy. On the other hand, the founders worried that the majority could abuse its powers to oppress a minority just as easily as a king could. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison both warn in their letters about the dangers of the tyranny of the legislature and the executive. Madison, alluding to slavery, went further, writing, “It is of great importance in a republic, not only to guard the society against the oppression of its rulers, but to guard one part of the society against the injustice of the other part.” . . as democracy is conceived today, the minority's rights must be protected no matter how singular or alienated that minority is from the majority society; otherwise, the majority's rights lose their meaning.

A half century after the United States was established, Alexis de Tocqueville saw the majority's tyranny over political and social minorities as “a constant threat” to American democracy. During his travels of 1831-33, he visited the state of Pennsylvania, which had passed the first abolition law among the United States (Vermont abolished slavery in its constitution in 1777 before it joined the union). Tocqueville, however, observed that no free blacks had come to vote in a local election he was observing. When asked why, he was told that “while free blacks had the legal right to vote, they feared the consequences of exercising it.” Tocqueville had discovered one of the most profound challenges to the functioning of a true democracy. “The majority,” he concluded, “not only makes the laws, but can break them as well.”

Democracy Requires Minority Rights

Democracy therefore requires minority rights equally as it does majority rule. Indeed, as democracy is understood today, the minority's rights must be protected no matter how alienated a minority is from the majority society; otherwise, the majority's rights lose their meaning. In the United States, individual liberties, as well as the rights of groups and individual states, are protected through the Bill of Rights, which were drafted by James Madison and adopted as the first Ten Amendments to the Constitution.

These enumerate the rights that may not be violated by the government, safeguarding in theory against majority tyranny. Today, such rights are considered the essential element of any liberal democracy and are embodied in international human rights conventions.

The British political philosopher John Stuart Mill took this principle further. In his essay On Liberty he wrote, “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community against his will is to prevent harm to others.” Mill's “no harm principle” aims to prevent government from becoming a vehicle for the “tyranny of the majority,” which he viewed as not just a political but also a social tyranny that stifled minority voices and imposed regimentation of thought and values. Mill's views became the basis for much of liberal political philosophy, whether it is economic liberalism or social liberalism.

How do majority rule and the protection of minority rights function in practice? Clearly, the two can easily collide when the assertion of Madisonian rights and Millian liberalism confront an immovable democratic majority. In part, this is achieved through consensus respect for individual rights: in between elections and during political campaigns, minority views are given fair play in legislatures, the media, and in the public square. Another basic protection of the minority, however, is the regularity of elections and the principles of separation of powers and checks and balances, both of which make it difficult for majorities to achieve absolute power (see “Constitutional Limits“).

John Stuart Mill

Minority Rights II: Protecting Minority Groups in Society

Madisonian and Millian principles safeguard individual and political minorities. But, as de Tocqueville observed above, the danger of majority tyranny lies also in the oppression of minority groups in society based on criteria such as skin color, ethnicity or nationality, religion, sexual orientation, and other group characteristics. Throughout history, rulers have targeted minority religious and ethnic groups (oftentimes they are the same) for harsh repression, whether to protect the privileges of the majority (such as the persecution of Protestants in France) or simply out of discriminatory beliefs. Over two millennia, Jews, both in their homeland and in diaspora, have been frequently discriminated against and had little protection from persecution and pogroms. Even in places of refuge, like the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, anti-Semitism remained persistent. Discrimination also happens even within the same group. In India, for example, the caste system relegated Harijans, also known as Dalits or “untouchables,” to discrimination and conditions of terrible poverty, also for millennia. Examples of persecution of minorities are unfortunately many.

The African American Experience

In the United States, the African American experience is clearly illustrative of the danger of systematic tyranny of one group by a majority. The US Constitution, adopted in 1789, flatly contradicted the principles of the Declaration of Independence that asserted “all men are created equal.” Although slavery was never specifically mentioned, many of the Constitution’s provisions effectively sanctioned the practice of ownership of persons as property and the terrible oppression of millions of Africans brought to America in chains for forced labor. In the end, a Civil War had to be fought before emancipation was achieved.  The 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the Constitution abolishing slavery, guaranteeing equal rights and due process to “all persons,” and guaranteeing the right to vote “without regard of race, color, or previous condition of servitude” were in themselves great advances in freedom. But once federal troops were withdrawn and Reconstruction was ended, these amendments did not prevent a systematic regime of violence and intimidation against blacks in former states of the Confederacy and the adoption of Jim Crow laws that institutionalized segregation in all facets of life. Nor did these amendments prevent the less systematic but still pervasive practice of discrimination against African Americans in the North. Just as the Supreme Court had earlier tolerated and then, in its infamous Dred Scot decision, legitimized slavery, its rulings in the 1880s and 1890s gave legal sanction to segregation and denial of voting rights. The most well-known is the 1896 decision in Plessy v. Ferguson that established the discriminatory doctrine of “separate but equal.”

To overcome this new form of majority tyranny the African American minority had to confront the reality that nearly all political avenues were closed to it even though African Americans accounted for nearly 12 percent of the population. In the South the right to vote was effectively taken away and in the North it was mainly (although not always) ineffectual. Another strategy was needed. In 1905, W. E. B. Du Bois and other African American leaders formed the Niagara Movement and later, in 1909, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Its stated purposes were to take the fullest advantage of the freedoms contained in the Bill of Rights in order to challenge American institutions to live up to the country’s democratic principles. Other black leaders, like A. Philip Randolph, struggled stubbornly over decades for worker rights and equal employment through trade union organizing and mobilizing citizens for mass action. In the strategy of these leaders, the rational answer to systematic denial of freedom was the persistent exercise of freedom in order to convince the majority to act according to the principles established in the country's own founding. The answer to systematic inequality was continuing to demand legal equality and justice in legislatures and courts as established in the 14th Amendment — despite the Supreme Court's legitimation of discrimination. The success of this strategy in fulfilling more the stated ideals of American democracy was found in the federal executive orders banning discrimination in defense industries and the armed forces in the 1940s; in the series of victories of Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund in the Supreme Court that broke down the legal protection of segregation (especially in Brown v. Board of Education that fully overturned the “separate but equal” doctrine); and even more significantly in the rise of the modern Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s, which adopted civil disobedience and mass action to gain adoption and enforcement of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts and other effective civil rights legislation and practices during the next two decades.

There is abundant evidence that full equality remains elusive. The history of slavery and institutional prejudice against minorities in America has a continuing legacy. Still, the methods adopted by the American Civil Rights Movement and its significant accomplishments in ending systemic discrimination have become an enduring international symbol in the struggle for world freedom and a much-used model for how an oppressed minority can seek freedom through the determined and peaceful exercise of democratic rights.

Piles of Bones Illustrating the Hutu Genocide

The Ultimate Denial of Minority Rights

The most extreme treatment of minorities in the 20th- and 21st-centuries has been found in dictatorships. The worst examples are those of totalitarian regimes that carried out genocide to eradicate unwanted groups in society. The Holocaust perpetrated by Nazi Germany murdered six million Jews, one-third of the total world Jewish population and two-thirds of European Jewry. The Nazis also subjected to mass incarceration and extermination a significant portion of the Roma community, homosexuals, and other minority groups. The Soviet Union, under Stalin, carried out mass executions and deportations of dozens of nationalities, especially Caucasian and Central Asian ethnic groups. Some now face extinction (see also the section on Human Rights).

More recently, starting in 1999, the Russian Federation has waged a brutal war against its own republic of Chechnya, killing tens of thousands of civilians and displacing more than half the population. Other recent examples of mass killings of a national or ethnic minority by a dictatorship include the Nigerian government’s campaign against Biafra in the late 1960s (see Nigeria Country Study in Freedom of Religion); Saddam Hussein's mass killing of Kurds and Shiites in Iraq in the 1980s and ‘90s; the mass murder of Tutsi by Hutu in Rwanda; and the Sudanese government's sponsorship of mass killing, raping, and deportation of the Darfur minority (see Sudan Country Study in this section). Slobodan Milosevic’s project to create an “ethnically pure” Greater Serbia in the 1990s resulted in the murder of 200,000 Bosnian Muslims and 10,000 Albanian Muslims in Kosovo by a killing machine that was stopped only by NATO military campaigns — one of the few effective international interventions to protect minorities from targeted slaughter. In 2015, President Obama ordered US forces to intervene to save the ancient monotheist Yazidi population from slaughter and enslavement by the terrorist group Islamic State, which has seized territory in Syria and Iraq. 

International Protection of Minority Rights

The 20th century’s history of targeted repression and killing of ethnic and national groups has made the protection of minorities from abuse by majorities one of the highest obligations of international law. The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, adopted after World War II in 1948, is the most widely recognized international treaty governing the practice of nation-states. The UN's International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, adopted in 1966, defines not just individual rights but also minimum protections for minorities. Article 27 asserts:

[P]ersons belonging to [ethnic, religious, or linguistic] minorities shall not be denied the right in community with the other members of their group to enjoy
their own culture, to profess and practice their own religion, or to use their own language.

The Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities, (issued in 1992 by the UN General Assembly) and the Convention No. 169 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples (adopted by the International Labour Organization in 1989) further define protections for ethnic, religious, and cultural minorities to preserve their culture, languages, and beliefs and to protect themselves from discrimination. While these treaties establish clear international moral standards and have improved conditions for minorities in many places, the examples noted above make clear that the actual practice of the international community in protecting minorities from targeted repression is inconsistent, at best.

“Untouchables” or Harijans (Dalits) in India

The Persistence of Discrimination

In Europe, minority Muslim communities from former colonies in northern Africa, the Middle East, and Southwest Asia have struggled against pervasive discrimination and the denial of equal opportunities in education, jobs, and housing (see, for example, Country Study of France). Majority indigenous groups in several other Latin American countries have long been treated as “the minority” for most of their countries' constitutional histories (see Country Studies of Bolivia and Guatemala). Indeed, the issues of minorities seeking greater freedom, equality, autonomy, and protection against discrimination and unequal treatment remain at the heart of politics, protest and conflict in many parts of the world. Usually they are addressed through nonviolent means such as elections, protests, legislation, the courts, protection of native lands, education, and other efforts granting regional autonomy or specific rights and privileges. In some cases minorities have taken up arms to achieve their goals, but this strategy is usually less successful.

Minority rights in general often pose a difficult political choice within a democracy: assimilation versus separation. While assimilation of a minority into the broader society offers a minority greater opportunities and political influence, it does so often at the expense of minority cultures, beliefs, and practices. On the other hand, preserving cultures, beliefs, and practices by insulating the minority reduces its influence within the majority political culture. Often, there is a spiraling effect as insular minority communities face discrimination and lack of economic opportunity, which reinforces a sense of social alienation, especially among the young. It is not an easy balance (see, for example, Netherlands Country Study in this section).

 The Democratic Ideal

On a practical level, the application of majority rule and minority rights relies on a set of rules agreed to by everyone in a political community. How are majorities determined? What are the limits of debate and speech? How can members in a community propose a motion or law? Should a minority be allowed to prevent the majority's will? How can minority groups be guaranteed political and social representation within a democratic framework? There is no one answer to these (and many other) questions and they have been answered differently in many democracies. But for those countries that follow an Anglo-Saxon tradition, Robert's Rules of Order, the standard guide for running parliamentary and other meetings and discussions (see link in Resources), offers a concise statement of the democratic ideal:

American Parliamentary Law is built upon the principle that rights must be respected: the rights of the majority,
of the minority, of individuals, of absentees, and rights of all of these together.

Constitutional Limits on Government: Study Questions

Suggested Study Questions and Activities

Teachers: The following are questions and activities that can be given to your students after they read the materials in each section. The questions are meant to be asked as a review exercise, although some encourage critical thinking as well. The activities can be presented as classroom exercises or as individual homework assignments. Unlike the questions, they tend to require additional research. Some call for students to create mock trials or debates that would engage the entire class. Both the questions and the activities are formatted so that they might be used directly by students, although you may rewrite them as you feel necessary.

Essential Principles

Class Questions

(1) What constitutional model offers the best foundation for limited government: parliamentary systems, presidential systems, or mixed parliamentary-presidential systems? Is one better or worse than another?

(2) The current and historical examples of absolutism and totalitarianism offer clear negative reasons for establishing limited government in order to prevent state tyranny. What are positive reasons for establishing constitutional limits on government?


(1) Consider the complex arrangement of constitutional limits in the U.S. establishing checks and balances on power and recent arguments that such limits create political gridlock, making it difficult to adopt legislation addressing major. Find articles addressing the problem of “gridlock” and divided government in the U.S. system. Hold a debate on the question: “The U.S. Constitutional System is Unable to Deal with Current Problems and Should Be Amended: Yes or No?” Choose a specific issue that has been considered “intractable” as an example to answer the question. Draw on American history for examples that demonstrate the merits and demerits of the American system in order to make the argument in favor of your position. Create teams to deal with different aspects of the problem.

(2) Today, the most widely used constitutional models in the world are those of Great Britain (a parliamentary model) and the United States (a presidential model). Many countries have been influenced by their former colonial rulers (France, Netherlands, Portugal, and Spain). Meanwhile, the Communist model, which competed internationally with democracy during the 20th century, is the governing principle in only a handful of countries today. Review the country studies in other sections for different examples and lessons in constitutionalism. Which countries have established stable constitutions with separation of powers, checks and balances, and other forms of accountability? Which haven't? Make a list comparing them. What aspects of constitutionalism from the different traditions mentioned above provide best for a stable democracy and human rights?



(1) Does France's strong presidency pose threats to democratic rule? What protections under the constitution exist to prevent the arrogation of powers by the French president? What limits on state power exist as a result of France’s membership in the European Union and Council of Europe?

(2) Refer to the Country Study and to the Freedom in the World survey overview for France. What prominent issues in the last five years have involved constitutional limits on power in France?


(1) France adopted a law banning women from wearing full face and body coverings (the niqab and burqa) in 2010. In June 2014, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the law was “a legitimate attempt to preserve the norms of France’s diverse society” and did not violate the European Convention on Human Rights. Organize a discussion (or debate) in class on the issue: Is such a ban consistent with principles of freedom of expression or freedom of religion? Is it a violation of principles of constitutional limits or a legitimate means of fostering equality and preventing male domination of women? Explore why the ban was adopted, what arguments justified passage of the law, what arguments opposed it. What is the relationship of this law to the long-standing public policy of laïcité (or separation of church and state)? What other countries have adopted similar laws and why? Find pro- and con- views in the legislative and public debates on the issue in Europe.  Have there been similar attempts to adopt such a law in the U.S.?

(2) The 2015 terrorist attacks in France prompted the president to use his emergency powers to suspend several constitutional provisions to allow for widespread searches without warrants of homes and workplaces, the indefinite holding of terror suspects, the closing of mosques suspected of harboring radical jihadists, among others. Should the National Assembly support the president’s request to make permanent changes to the constitution to allow such practices generally? What is justified in the war against terror? What issues in the U.S. relate to what is happening in France?



Why did President Serrano's 1993 attempt to seize power fail? Are Guatemala's current constitutional safeguards sufficient to prevent the return of dictatorship?

What has characterized Guatemala’s democracy since 1985? What aspects hinder democracy? What aspects strengthen democracy? How has France established greater stability under its constitution?


Examine the Survey of Freedom report on Guatemala and the methodology used in the Survey. Why is Guatemala in the “partly free” category instead of the free category despite having had free elections for 25 years? Do you agree with its assessment? What are weaknesses in Guatemala’s constitutional limits? Organize a debate in class: Should Guatemala be characterized as “free” or “partly free”? Why?

Look at recent newspaper stories and other resources (e.g. Human Rights Watch) concerning the Attorney General’s case against Ríos Montt for genocide and crimes against humanity. Should Ríos Montt face charges of genocide for his counter-terrorism campaign in the early 1980s? Discuss: Is accountability or stability more important for Guatemalan society?



Why is Uzbekistan characterized by Freedom House as among “the worst of the worst” countries in terms of freedom and human rights? What makes Uzbekistan “not free” in comparison to France and Guatemala? What makes it “worse” than other “not free” countries?


Examine The New York Times and Washington Post articles on the use of child labor in Uzbekistan. Investigate the campaigns being organized to get rid of child labor in Uzbekistan and other countries using the sources in the Post article as well as such sources the AFL-CIO’s Solidarity Center and the International Labor Rights Forum. Why has Uzbekistan lied about its continued use of child labor? What actions do you think could be used to influence the government of Uzbekistan to end this practice?

Examine constitutional limits and safeguards in France. What constitutional limits in free countries prevent governments from using indiscriminate or excessive force in cases of civil unrest (as Islam Karimov ordered in Andijon in 2005)? Examine Freedom House’s and Human Rights Watch’s reports on Uzbekistan. What freedoms exist in international law under International Covenants on Civil and Political Rights and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that should prevent the use of force against citizens?

Constitutional Limits on Government: Resources


Essential Principles

The Avalon Project: Documents in Law, History, and Diplomacy. New Haven, CT: Yale Law School, 2008.
   Federalist Papers No. 47. "The Particular Structure of the New Government and the Distribution of Power Among Its Different Parts."
   Federalist Papers No. 48. "How These Departments Should Not Be So Far Separated as to Have No Constitutional Control Over Each Other."
   Federalist Papers No. 49. "Method of Guarding Against the Encroachments of Any One Department of Government."

King, Martin Luther, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” April 16, 1963. Available at African Studies Center, University of Pennsylvania.

Paine, Thomas. Common Sense (1776). Available online at

Rustin, Bayard, A Time on Two Crosses, Collected Writings (2003). San Francisco: Cleiss Press.

Wiesel, Elie. Night (1960). New York: Hill and Wang.


Economist magazine: Topics Index: France.

The New York Times: World: Times Topics: France. See, e.g.,
   “French Ban on Face Veils Upheld by European Human Rights Court” (July 1, 2014)
   “Beating of Roma Boy Exposes Tensions in France’s Underclass” (June 25, 2014).
   “For Hateful Comic in France, Muzzle Becomes a Megaphone” (Mar. 10, 2014).
   “France’s Highest Court Says Head Scarf No Cause for Dismissal” (Mar. 19, 2013).

The Avalon Project: Documents in Law, History, and Diplomacy. New Haven, CT: Yale Law School, 2008.
   Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, 1789 (link).

Hacken, Richard. "EuroDocs—History of France: Primary Documents" (2006). Brigham Young University.

Jones, Colin. The Cambridge Illustrated History of France (Cambridge University Press, 1999).

U.S. Department of State Human Rights Country Reports (go to current year Country Report drop down menu for France).


Economist magazine: Topics Index: Guatemala. See e.g., 
     “A Former Dictator’s Conviction May Not Be the End of Tragic Story” (May 18, 2013).

The New York Times: World: Times Topics: Guatemala

Doyle, Kate. "The Guatemalan Police Archives" (Nov 21, 2005). National Security Archive.

Global Exchange: Guatemala Resources.

Human Rights Watch. World Report 2015: Guatemala.

International Crisis Group, “The [U.N.] International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala,” (Jan. 25, 2016).

Neier, Aryeh. “Guatemala: Will Justice Be Done.” New York Review of Books (June 20, 2013).

Open Society Justice Initiative
   A Comprehensive web site on the Trial of Efraim Rios Montt and Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez.

U.S. Department of State Human Rights Country Reports (go to current year Country Report drop down menu for Guatemala).


Economist magazine: Topics Index: Uzbekistan. See, e.g.,
    “Intimations of Mortality: Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan,” April 6, 2013.
    “Elections in Central Asia: No Choice,” April 4, 2015.

The New York Times: World: Times Topics: Uzbekistan.

International Press Institute
   Burkhardt, Paul. “Silencing the Press in Uzbekistan,” IPI Global Journalist, 3rd Quarter, 2005.

Human Rights Watch: World Report 2015: Uzbekistan.

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
    “Uzbekistan’s Grounded Officials” (June 30, 2014)

Transparency International: Corruptions Perception Index: 2014.

The Washington Post
   “Uzbekistan Breaks Promise to End Child Labor in Cotton Fields” (Sept. 24, 2012).

U.S. Department of State Human Rights Country Reports (go to current year Country Report drop down menu for Uzbekistan).


Constitutional Limits on Government: Country Studies — Uzbekistan

Uzbekistan Country Study

Rankings in Freedom in the World: 2016: Status: Not Free. Freedom Ranking: 7; Political Rights: 7; Civil Liberties: 7.



Uzbekistan, a nation in Central Asia, borders five countries (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and Turkmenistan). For much of its history, Uzbekistan was inhabited by nomadic peoples, but it was also home to ancient trading centers. These included famous cities like Bukhara and Samarkand, which were key stopping points on the historic Silk Road. While the territory of Uzbekistan has been under the cultural and political control or influence of successive Persian, Greek, Arab, Turkic, Mongol, and Ottoman empires, its wealthy cities often enjoyed a certain degree of independence as the centers of small states. The conqueror Timur (known in Europe as Tamerlane) made Samarkand the capital of a vast empire in the 14th century. Uzbek tribes invaded from the north in the 16th century and established separate khanates or kingdoms. These were eventually absorbed by Russia in the late 1800s during its imperial push south and east. After a brief period of independence following the Russian Revolution, Uzbekistan was seized by the Bolshevik Red Army in 1920 and it was formally incorporated into the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics Soviet Union in 1924. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Uzbekistan declared independence in December 1991.

Since independence, the country has been ruled by a single, increasingly authoritarian dictator, Islam Karimov, who quickly repressed democratic movements that arose in the late 1980s. Uzbekistan has no real constitutional limits and President Karimov now acts without any constraints on his power. In Freedom House's annual survey Freedom in the World, the country repeatedly ranks among the “worst of the worst” violators of political rights and civil liberties.

Uzbekistan is a middle-sized country in area (57th largest in the world) with a population of approximately 30 million people (41st highest). Uzbekistan, which does not have substantial mineral deposits like its neighbors Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, is one of the world's top cotton producers. According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Uzbekistan's state-heavy economy was ranked 73rd largest in the world in 2014 in nominal GDP ($62.5 billion in total output). By per capita measurements, however, Uzbekistan is among the world’s poorer countries in nominal GDP per capita, ranked 132nd in 2015 ($2,130 per annum) out of 194 countries and territories. Uzbekistan is among the most corrupt nations in the world . Transparency International places it 153rd out of 167 countries in its 2015 report.


Uzbekistan, originally inhabited by people speaking a Persian dialect, was for much of its early history part of the Persian Empire before the territory was conquered by Alexander the Great in the fourth century BC. The cities of Bukhara, Khiva, Samarkand, and Tashkent later grew prosperous as central links on the Silk Road, a network of trade routes running from China to the Middle East and Europe. Muslim Arabs conquered the region in the eighth century and thereafter it fell under the Persian Samanid dynasty, which revived Persian culture. Turkic tribes moving into the area from the north established new states in the 11th and 12th centuries.

From Genghis Khan to Timur

Uzbekistan was conquered by the Mongol leader Genghis Khan in the early 13th century. During the fragmentation of the Mongol successor states Timur, a Turkic Muslim who claimed descent from Genghis Khan, rose to power. Known as Tamerlane in Europe, he built an empire over 70 years (1336–1405) that extended from the Middle East to border regions of India and China. It was then that Samarkand, Timur's capital, was reborn as a famous center for architecture, Islamic scholarship, and trade. Within a century of Timur's death, however, his empire had broken up amid fighting among rival princes and tribal leaders. Soviet rule, all political rights and civil liberties were denied, the social structures of the country were uprooted, and traditional customs and cultural heritage were suppressed.

Decline and Russian Domination

In the early 16th century, Turkic-speaking Uzbeks invaded from the north and captured most of what is now Uzbekistan, as well as several surrounding territories. They established several small Muslim states based in the great trading cities of Bukhara and Khiva. But overland trade routes began to decline in importance as European oceanic shipping expanded. Although the area continued to enjoy prosperity into the 19th century, Uzbek rulers were hampered by raids from nomadic tribes, conflict with neighboring Persia, and internecine warfare. Russia expanded into Central Asia in the mid–19th century. It occupied Tashkent in 1865 and then proceeded to occupy all of the Uzbek emirates and khanates, placing them under colonial administration or leaving them nominally intact as protectorates. The imperial government encouraged Russian immigration and large-scale cotton growing, despite the crop's heavy dependence on scarce water resources.

Consequences of Soviet Rule

After the Russian Revolution of 1917, Uzbeks asserted independence but by 1920 the Bolshevik Red Army had instituted a Soviet government. Anti-Soviet guerrilla fighters, dubbed Basmachi by the Soviets, continued their struggle as late as the 1930s but were ultimately subdued. Uzbekistan was formally incorporated into the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics Soviet Union in 1924. Under Soviet rule, all political rights and civil liberties were denied, the social structures of the country were uprooted, and traditional customs and cultural heritage were suppressed. In addition, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin redrew the borders of Uzbekistan and the four other Central Asian republics in order to prevent regional unity and perpetuate dependence on centralized authority. Large-scale immigration of ethnic Russians and other ethnic groups was encouraged. Uzbek leaders suspected of nationalism were purged. Cotton cultivation was greatly expanded resulting in the massive diversion of river water for irrigation. The natural recipient of that water, the Aral Sea, has since shrunk to about a quarter of its former size in what is considered one of the world's worst man-made environmental disasters. Under a constitution dopted in 1992, the president . . . holds nearly total control over the legislature, the government administration, the security forces, the judiciary, and the state-run economy.

Constitutional Limits

Uzbekistan declared its independence after the attempted coup against Mikhail Gorbachev aimed at preventing the collapse of the Soviet Union was put down in August 1991. The Soviet-era power structure, however, was left largely intact. When the Soviet Union was formally dissolved in December 1991, Islam Karimov, the incumbent president and head of the Communist Party of Uzbekistan, held an election in which he claimed 88 percent of the vote in a patently rigged ballot. Leading candidates of opposition parties that had emerged during the period of perestroika and glasnost in the late 1980s were prevented from participating; afterwards pro-democracy parties such as the secular Birlik and the more religious Erk were banned.

Under a constitution adopted in 1992, the president's powers remain unchecked. Although the charter provides for a separate parliament and judiciary, as president Karimov holds nearly total control over the legislature, the government administration, the security forces, the judiciary, and the state-run economy. The prime minister and cabinet are his appointed subordinates. The president's term was initially limited to five years, with the possibility of a second term, but a staged referendum in 1995 extended Karimov's first term to 2000. Another so-called referendum in 2002 lengthened the second term to seven years. Simply ignoring the stated constitutional two-term limit for the presidency, Karimov “won” a third term in 2007, claiming 88 percent support. New amendments to the constitution extended Karimov’s third term, approved retroactively, to 2015 and allowed a fourth term to last until 2021. Karimov declared himself the victor in a rigged 2015 election with 91 percent of the vote. No real opponents have ever been allowed in presidential (or parliamentary) “elections.”

Independent political parties are banned and function only on a limited basis in exile. When an opposition leader in exile announced his intention to run in the 2015 presidential elections, his aged father, living in Uzbekistan, was arrested. After two weeks of being held incommunicado, the father was falsely charged with rape.

Abuses of Power

After independence, the government promoted Uzbek national identity and encouraged large numbers of ethnic Russians and other non-Uzbeks to leave the country. The authorities also have imposed strict limits on freedom of speech and the press and exercise control over all major domestic media outlets and newspaper printing facilities (most Uzbeks watch Russian television that is broadcast on state television). Access to the internet and independent foreign news sources is severely restricted. In the 1990s, civil society groups arose to promote human rights, small businesses, and education, but the regime cracked down harshly on this sector. New laws made many NGOs illegal and forced foreign nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), such as Human Rights Watch, to close their offices. Nearly all human rights activity and all human rights organizations have been quashed and at least 13 human rights defenders languish in prison, according to Freedom House. Torture, according to Human Rights Watch, is “endemic.” International travel is restricted for any critics of the regime and even more generally for those employed in professions deemed “sensitive” (including the medical profession, journalism, and the law).

Freedom of religion also is restricted, and, the practice of Islam outside government-controlled mosques and organizations is treated as extremism and associated with terrorism. Thousands of people have been imprisoned under this policy, including those who were simply involved in independent economic activity. In the context of these policies, extremist organizations use people’s disaffection with government repression to recruit followers. Some, such as Hizb ut-Tahrir, officially disavow violent tactics, but militant groups like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) have carried out terrorist attacks.

Bomb Blasts and The Andijon Massacre

Several bomb blasts in 2004 and 2005 targeting police in Tashkent were officially attributed to the IMU (although several analysts believe the blasts were staged by government agents). In response, the government launched a campaign of widespread arrests aimed at  civic and religious activists and small businessmen. Soon afterwards, in May 2005, a small group of gunmen in the city of Andijon organized a prison break to free local businessmen accused of religious extremism, taking several government employees hostage. Civilians gathered in a public square to air grievances with the government. Security forces arriving at the scene opened fire on the largely unarmed crowd. Independent observers and human rights organizations claim that as many as 1,000 people were killed, including women and children attempting to flee. After the attack, the government continued its crackdown with a series of show trials for the supposed terrorists behind the uprising. The massacre and crackdown led to deterioration in Uzbekistan's relations with the United States and the European Union, which demanded an independent inquiry. As a result, Karimov strengthened his ties with Russia and China and evicted US forces from an air base they had been using for operations in Afghanistan. In June 2010, Uzbekistan accepted 10,000 Uzbek refugees fleeing Kyrgyzstan in the wake of ethnic attacks in the region of Osh.

Current Issues

In March 2013, Karimov, at 75 years of age, disappeared from public view for eight days around the time of the annual Nawruz (Zoroastrian) celebrations. It was the first time that he had not participated in the usual holiday dances. Speculation about Karimov’s health — he reportedly suffered a heart attack — has spurred rumors about succession. His eldest daughter, Gulnara Karimova, 40 years old, had been the leading candidate until she fell from favor after being accused by authorities in Sweden and Switzerland of successfully soliciting a $300 million payment from the Swedish telecommunications company Teliasonera for Karimov’s Swiss bank family accounts (those accounts were frozen temporarily pending legal proceedings). The Karimov government placed Karimova under house arrest, although this was not a recognized procedure in Uzbek law. In an example of the lack of constitutional limits on power, the legislature recently provided ex post facto authority for indefinite house arrest by amending the constitution. Karimov’s perpetuation of his presidency in a staged 2015 election has ended for the time being speculation about his successor.

The Uzbek economy is among the worst performing in the world. Its cotton industry continues to rely on child labor. An international campaign aimed at ending this practice led the government to announce limits on forced labor and to allow an inspection by a team from the International Labor Organization (ILO). The most recent harvest, however, still relied on obligatory labor by students. The government remains very sensitive about this issue: a journalist reporting on forced and child labor practices, Sergei Naumov, was arrested and also falsely charged with sexual misconduct. Kept incommunicado, he was released after serving a twelve-day sentence.

There continues to be ongoing harassment and repression of civic and human rights activists. In September 2013, for example, Bobomorod Rizzakov, a regional leader of the only registered human rights organization permitted to operate in Uzbekistan, Ezgulik, was sentenced to four years imprisonment on human trafficking charges after criticizing local government officials for corruption. At least one individual active in the political organization Birdamlik was subjected to forced psychiatric imprisonment, a common practice during Soviet rule. The government did release one prominent opposition activist in 2015, Murad Juraev, after his sentence was completed (he served 21 years and was considered the longest-serving political prisoner in the world until his release). But another example of wanton human rights abuse was the government’s announcement in January 2016 that another political prisoner, Akram Yuldashev, who had advocated for Islamic principles to be used in the transition from communism and who was scheduled for release in early 2016, had in fact died in incarceration in 2010. International human rights organizations had campaigned for years for his release. Not even family members had been notified of the death until the government announcement.

Constitutional Limits on Government: Country Studies — Guatemala

 Guatemala Country Study

Rankings in Freedom in the World 2016: Status: Partly Free. Freedom Ranking: 4; Political Rights: 4; Civil Liberties: 4.



Guatemala was home to some of the most ancient civilizations in the Americas, but the Spanish conquest was particularly brutal in this territory. Most of the Mayan population was enslaved. From the time Guatemala established itself as an independent republic in 1839, it was dominated by a white and mestizo elite and ruled mostly by dictators who allowed foreign companies, mostly from the US, to dominate the economy and agriculture/ A popular revolution in 1944 introduced universal suffrage and land reform, but a US-assisted coup in 1954 overthrew the elected government and began 30 years of right-wing military rule. Counter-insurgency campaigns against a communist-inspired guerilla movement resulted in an estimated 200,000 deaths and dispossessed hundreds of thousands more. In these campaigns, the Guatemalan military carried out crimes against indigenous peoples that have been termed genocidal by international human rights institutions and domestic courts.

After a coup by progressive military officers in 1984, a constituent assembly was established to draft a new constitution, which initiated a period of more democratic governance over the last 30 years. An end to the civil war was negotiated in 1996 whereby leftist guerilla groups agreed to lay down their arms and restructure themselves as a political party. A lack of stable political institutions, entrenched privilege, poverty, a legacy of violence, and until recently a culture of corruption and impunity for past crimes under the military dictatorship are some of the significant issues that have faced Guatemala’s citizens, who have successfully defended the constitution against coup attempts, political subterfuge, and, in 2015, a broad conspiracy to defraud the state by the president.

Guatemala is a small country in Central America located immediately south of Mexico. It borders Belize to the east and Honduras and El Salvador to the south. Like Bolivia (see Country Study), the large, rural Amerindian population is not well integrated into the political and economic elite. In area, Guatemala ranks 103rd out of 192 countries in the world at around 109,000 square kilometers. Its population of 16.1 million people ranks 67th. Economically, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the country is in the world's upper half (at 75th) in overall nominal GDP with roughly $58.7 billion USD in total output. But Guatemala ranks among Latin America’s poorest countries. In 2015, the nominal per capita GDP was estimated at $3,886 per annum, placing it 112th in the IMF’s list of 194 countries and territories.

From the time it established itself as an independent republic in 1839, Guatemala was ruled mostly by dictators who often allowed foreign companies to dominate the economy and


Guatemala was a central part of the Mayan civilization and its territory contains some of the richest archaeological sites in the world. Originally inhabited between 18,000 and 10,000 BC, the region witnessed the rise of the Mayan and nearby Olmec civilizations beginning around 1500 BC. Most scholars agree that the Mayan civilization reached its apex between AD 300 and 900, although one of Guatemala's most significant archaeological sites, El Mirador, is evidence that it may have reached its peak several centuries earlier. The El Mirador complex is thought to have formed the largest city in the ancient Americas and its pyramid structures rival those of Egypt in overall size. The Mayan civilization began to crumble after the 10th century AD with the dispersal of large city-states into smaller settlements, but Mayan language and culture remained dominant among the Amerindian nations that inhabited the region in the succeeding centuries.

Spanish Conquest: The General Captaincy of Guatemala

The Spanish conquest of Guatemala, beginning in 1523, brought about the final destruction of Mayan civilization and the subjugation of the Amerindian population. The entire region between southeastern Mexico and Panama was placed under the so-called captaincy general of Guatemala for nearly three centuries. The current capital, Guatemala City, was founded in 1776 after earthquakes destroyed earlier capitals. Spanish conquest introduced a dominant class of white settlers, who were given control of the land and the authority to exploit natural resources through slave labor (similarly to Bolivia, and Venezuela). Roman Catholicism was imposed as the dominant religion, but Mayan culture survived in clandestine practice over centuries and today remains an important part of Guatemalan society.

Independence, Unity, and Strongman Rule

Independence from Spain was declared in 1821. At first, the United Provinces of Central America was established, including most of the captaincy general of Guatemala (present-day Costa Rica, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua). The federation, however, soon dissolved in civil war. Guatemala established itself as an independent republic in 1839 under the presidency of General Rafael Carrera, who was backed by previous colonial power brokers, landowners and the Catholic Church. He ruled 26 years until 1865. Some change came with the liberal revolution of 1871. One of the leaders of the revolution, Justo Rufino Barrios, assumed the presidency in 1873. He had a new constitution adopted, introduced secular education, and sought to modernize the economy by expanding coffee cultivation. Barrios, however, also attempted to reconstitute a Central American federation by force, a folly that led to his death in a battle in El Salvador in 1885. Thereafter, Guatemala was generally dominated by authoritarian rule, especially the long presidencies of Manuel Estrada Cabrera (1898–1920) and General Jorge Ubico (1931–44). These two rulers followed past leaders in institutionalizing authoritarian government and attracting extensive foreign agricultural investment, mostly from Germany and the US, to develop the Guatemalan economy.

The 1944 Revolution

A general strike in June 1944 forced General Ubico's resignation. A popular revolt supported by dissident army officers then ousted his chosen successor in October. The interim military leaders, Jacobo Arbenz Guzman and Francisco Javier Arana, ceded power in 1945 to a civilian president, Juan José Arévalo, who had won a largely uncontested election. Arévalo introduced universal suffrage, land reform, and labor reforms that benefited indigenous farmers, workers, and trade unions. Arévalo’s challenge to the old order, however, resulted in fierce conservative opposition and accusations that he was a communist. Even so, he served his full term to 1951.

The Arbenz Presidency and the 1954 Coup

Arbenz, one of the interim military leaders, succeeded Arévalo in Guatemala’s first contested free election in 1951. Influenced by socialist ideas, he oversaw the passage of an even more extensive agrarian reform law that authorized the seizure and redistribution of large estates that were not being cultivated. The move was welcomed by the country's many impoverished peasants, but it represented a serious threat to the US-based United Fruit Company, which had built up huge landholdings since the turn of the century. Arbenz's cooperation with the local Communist Party also fed US fears that Guatemala could eventually ally itself with the Soviet Union during the Cold War. In 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower authorized a US Central Intelligence Agency-coordinated invasion by right-wing exiles that succeeded in forcing Arbenz to resign and leave the country. The leader of the US-backed force, Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas, installed himself as the new president.

The Coup's Bloody Aftermath

Castillo Armas was assassinated in 1957, but the coup he led marked the beginning of decades of strongman rule and military dictatorship. It also set the stage for a brutal civil war against left-wing guerrillas that broke out in 1960. Over a period of thirty-six years, the government’s counterinsurgency campaigns are estimated to have resulted in at least 200,000 deaths and up to 50,000 disappearances, according to a U.N.-backed Truth Commission that was established in 1996 (its creation was part of the peace agreement ending the civil war). The atrocities committed by government forces led US President Jimmy Carter to cut off military aid in 1977 as part of a new US foreign policy emphasizing human rights.

From Coup to Democracy

A 1982 coup by junior officers and army troops brought General Efrain Ríos Montt, a religious charismatic, to power. He used his dictatorial authority to launch an especially bloody counterinsurgency campaign, prompting General Oscar Humberto Mejia Victores, who was repulsed by the violence, to overthrow Ríos Montt in August 1983. As president, General Meija pledged to restore democratic rule. He held elections for a constituent assembly in 1984 to draft a new constitution, which the assembly completed and approved the following year. In December 1985, the candidate of the reformist Christian Democratic Party, Marco Vinicio Cerezo Arévalo (not related to the earlier leader of the 1944 Revolution, Juan José Arévalo), won the presidential election and took office in January with strong popular expectations and backing from the United States and other democratic countries. This period introduced a long struggle for constitutional rule.

Constitutional Limits

Following its independence in 1838, Guatemala had a history of weak constitutional controls and strong, unchecked presidential rule. The 1985 constitution, adopted by an elected constitutional assembly, attempted to address this problem by establishing a stronger parliament and limiting the president to one four-year term. It also required a runoff election if no presidential candidate obtained a majority in the first round. Like the president, the 158-member unicameral Congress has a four-year mandate. A human rights ombudsman is empowered to investigate violations of the constitution's guaranteed freedoms and a Constitutional Court serves as the final arbiter of disputes involving the constitution and it also may investigate government abuses. Although there have not been stable political parties or institutions since its adoption, the 1985 constitution has withstood several significant tests and the Guatemalan public has often asserted itself in defense of democratic rights and freedoms against attempted coups and the arrogation of power. This happened most recently in 2015 with mass demonstrations forcing out a corrupt president (see Current Issues below). Still, the rule of law remains weak and Guatemala remains dominated by a right-oriented military and business elite that is often joined together. High corruption, crime, and violence also remain prevalent — a legacy of military rule and guerilla warfare that continues to undermine public security.

The Constitution Is Tested

Vinicio Cerezo, as the first president to be elected under the new constitution, fell short of expectations. The economy declined, his efforts to end the conflict with leftist guerrillas failed, and human rights investigations of the military stalled. In 1991, Jorge Serrano Elías, a businessman running as the candidate of the right-wing Movement of Solidarity Action (MAS), received a strong majority in the second round of presidential elections. He, tooHeHe, quickly became unpopular due to his economic austerity measures. In flagrant violation of Guatemala's new democratic constitution, Serrano dissolved Congress and assumed dictatorial powers in 1993. Citizens protested the coup and the military sided with the Constitutional Court after it declared Serrano’s actions illegal. Serrano was forced to resign and leave the country. The human rights ombudsman, Ramiro de León Carpio, was elected by the restored Congress to complete the presidential term.

. . . [T]he constitution has withstood several significant tests and the Guatemalan public has often asserted itself in defense of democratic rights and freedoms against attempted coups and the arrogation of power.

De León set out to end political instability and corruption. He ordered new elections for Congress in 1994 to obtain a clear mandate. With United Nations assistance, De León also re-initiated peace talks with the guerilla group, the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG). De León’s successor, Alvaro Arzu Irigoyen of the center-right National Advancement Party (PAN), finalized the peace accord with the URNG in 1996 under which the URNG agreed to lay down its arms and reconstitute itself as a political party. In the 1999 elections, the URNG party failed to win voter support and lost political strength. The elections were won by Alfonso Portillo of the Guatemalan Republican Front.

A Second and Third Test

In 2003, General Ríos Montt, drawing on his party's strong position in Congress, instigated violent street demonstrations in Guatemala City to pressure the Constitutional Court to allow him to run for the presidency despite a specific provision in the constitution banning anyone who participated in a coup from being president. The court's decision in favor of Ríos Montt was widely criticized but voters made this new test of the constitution moot: Ríos Montt came in third and failed to advance to the runoff. The winner was Óscar Berger Perdomo of the Great National Alliance (GANA), a right-wing party, running against Álvaro Colom of the National Unity for Hope (UNE), a new left-wing Social Christian party. In the legislative elections, the right parties still dominated: GANA edged out Ríos Montt's Republican Front (FRG).

In 2007, Colom, running again for UNE, defeated Otto Pérez Molina, a former general leading a new initiative, the conservative Patriotic Party (PP), in a runoff vote for president. In the congressional elections, UNE captured a plurality, 51 of the 158 seats, the first time since 1954 that left-wing parties controlled the presidency and held a plurality in the Congress. It appeared that Guatemala’s politics had achieved some degree of stability with a peaceful alternation of power among political parties.

In the November 2011 elections, however, Sandra Torres was disqualified as the presidential candidate for the UNE when the Constitutional Court ruled that her April 2011 divorce from President Alvaro Colom was an attempt to evade the constitutional prohibition of family members from immediately succeeding an outgoing president. Despite the likely success of the UNE candidate according to polls, the court’s ruling left voters a choice only between two right-wing candidates for president, Otto Peréz Molina, running again for the Patriotic Party, and Manuel Baldízon of the Renewed Democratic Liberty (LIDER), yet another new initiative. Otto Peréz won on a platform promising a “hard-fist” against corruption and rising crime. As president, he greatly increased spending for both military and police forces, deployed the military for police functions, and increased cooperation with the US on drug interdiction.

Justicia or Impunity

The 1996 peace agreement established a UN Truth Commission to investigate crimes during the military dictatorship and a related commission established under a different UN mandate continued to work as an investigator of government corruption. The published reports of both commissions have kept prominent the issue of accountability and the impunity of high officials for crimes committed during the counterinsurgency campaigns and endemic state corruption.

In 2011, Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz, who was appointed by UNE President Colom before leaving office, started to increase significantly the state’s prosecution of officials for corruption. In one case in 2013, the mayor and nine other officials of the city of Antigua, which is a major tourist magnet, were arrested and charged with making off with large sums from the city budget over many years. As well, ex-President Alfonso Portillo (2000–04), having successfully fought off domestic embezzlement charges for six years, was jailed in 2013 for extradition proceedings by Guatemala’s highest court. He was then sent to the US where a court had asserted jurisdiction in a case involving US banks. (Portillo agreed in March 2014 to plead guilty and accept a six-year sentence for taking $2.3 million in bribes from the Taiwan government and for conspiracy to launder $70 million in absconded funds.)

The main challenge for Attorney General Paz y Paz and Guatemala’s justice system, however, was the precedent-setting case she introduced against General Ríos Montt, the former president, and his former chief of staff, General Mauricio Rodriguez Sánchez. Both were arrested in early 2012 and charged with genocide and crimes against humanity for their ordering of the brutal counterinsurgency campaign in 1982-83. Specifically, they were charged for ordering the systematic killing of 1,771 people in the Mayan-Ixil region, one of the clearest examples of the scorched earth tactics the military used against suspected sympathizers of the guerrillas. Attorney General Paz y Paz had instituted the case after General Ríos Montt lost his legal immunity from prosecution as a member of Congress when he failed to gain a seat in the November 2011 elections. The case is highly significant. It is the first time that any former leader has been prosecuted in his or her own country on a charge of genocide. It was also the first time an official was brought before a Guatemalan court to be held accountable for the widespread killings and disappearances that took place during the military’s counter-insurgency campaign. The UN International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), set up in 2007, found that it was during the 1982–83 period that a large majority of the killings and “disappeared” occurred during the 36-year civil war.

The trial proved complex to prosecute, especially when President Otto Peréz, soon after his inauguration in 2012, withdrew the government’s support for Paz y Paz’s case and put public pressure on the judiciary to end it (Paz y Paz was appointed under the UNE government). Initially, a three-judge panel presided over a five-week trial in early 2013 and heard extensive evidence of the killings in the Mayan-Ixil region. But numerous appeals by the defense resulted in Constitutional Court rulings suspending the trial and removing Judge Yassmín Barrios as the trial judge. In the end, Judge Barrios was reinstated and resumed the trial that May. The court issued a unanimous 719-page ruling convicting Ríos Montt of crimes against humanity and genocide. The court sentenced him to 80 years’ imprisonment, 50 years for genocide and 30 for crimes against humanity. Sánchez was acquitted of both charges.

In her ruling Judge Yassmín Barrios determined that the evidence introduced in trial and the end result of the military campaign — the killing of 5.5 percent of an ethnic group — constituted the sufficiency of proof of the charge of genocide as well as crimes against humanity. She also determined that “command responsibility” meant that Ríos Montt had clear knowledge of and authority over the military campaign and constituted proof of his guilt. The Constitutional Court then vacated the ruling ten days after it was issued on questionable due process grounds. Human rights organizations criticized the ruling and charged that the Constitutional Court politicized the case due to public opposition of the trial by President Otto Peréz, a former general, and pressure organized by the business community.

A lower court ruled in 2015 that Ríos Montt must face retrial, despite his increasing dementia. The case was scheduled to be reheard in January 2016, but it is delayed pending appeal of the lower court’s ruling.

Current Issues

In January 2014, the Constitutional Court also ordered Paz y Paz’s term as Attorney General to be shortened by seven months before her term was set to expire.  The Court was seen as acting on the political wishes of President Otto Peréz, who had opposed not just the Ríos Montt trial but also Paz y Paz’s broader anti-corruption campaign. A former head of the Supreme Court, Thelma Aldana, was appointed in her stead in May 2014.

Aldana was believed to have the general backing of the right-wing and military establishment and was not expected to continue the anti-corruption and human rights cases of Paz y Paz, an ally of the former left-wing UNE-led government. Aldana, however, surprised observers when she began leading an investigation into allegations that high-level officials had organized a wide ranging scheme to lower customs duties in exchange for bribes. By May 2015, the investigation had been extended by involvement of the U.N. International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG). Its report led to charges against the vice president and soon it became clear that the scheme — involving hundreds of millions of dollars in both bribes and lost revenue — had been orchestrated by President Otto Peréz himself (see link to the International Crisis Group’s report in Resources).

A broad civic campaign was organized to demand Otto Peréz’s resignation and prosecution, leading to mass demonstrations in Guatemala City and other cities in August and early September. Soon after the Congress removed the president’s immunity from prosecution, Otto Peréz resigned on September 4. He was immediately jailed to face corruption charges. The resignation came two days before the first round of voting for Otto Peréz’s successor in scheduled 2015 elections. The winner in the first round, running on the platform “I am not a thief,” was Jimmy Morales, a comedian one of whose well known characters is a bumbling politician. He went on to win the second round with 67 percent of the vote against the UNE candidate, Sandra Torres, who was now allowed to run for the presidency.

The mandate, however, is unclear: more than half of Guatemala’s eligible voters did not cast ballots in the second round. In fact, Morales was not a candidate of the civic movement but of a new right-wing party made up of former military officers and backed by Guatemala’s conservative business federation. Some of the military officers, it has turned out, have close ties to Ríos Montt. Nevertheless, Morales’s election was the product of another clear demonstration of Guatemala’s “people power.” As a result, Morales has indicated support for Thelma Aldana’s corruption prosecutions and the continued effort to re-try Ríos Montt.

Attorney General Thelma Aldana has also pressed forward with additional human rights cases that have further challenged the entrenched position of the military establishment in Guatemalan politics. In January 2016, the Attorney General’s office ordered the arrest of 18 former high-ranking military officers, including a former army chief of staff and head of military intelligence. Most of the charges are the result of a three-year investigation into crimes committed at a military base in the central region of Alta Verapaz, where investigators found the remains of 558 people, including 90 children, killed in a period from 1981 to 1986. Four officers are charged with the disappearance of a youth in Guatemala City. Among the officers is a member of congress from President Morales’s party, whom Aldana is asking the Constitutional Court to strip of his legal immunity.

Guatemala continues to have an unstable political foundation. Business and military elites have constantly manipulated political parties so that it has been difficult to establish a stable multiparty system. Corruption at the highest levels and interference with state institutions like the Constitutional Court continue to bring new challenges to Guatemala’s constitutional system. In recent years, it has been the efforts  of independent Attorney Generals that have helped maintain the functioning of the constitution and established a measure of accountability of officials for human rights violations and corruption. It remains to be seen whether the foundation for a democratic system having strong constitutional limits and accountability will be strengthened or weakened.

Constitutional Limits on Government: Country Studies — France

 France Country Study 

Rankings in Freedom in the World 2016: Status: Free. Freedom Ranking: 1; Political Rights: 1; Civil Liberties: 1.



France is a republic with a mixed presidential-parliamentary system of government. It has a history filled with division, intolerance, absolutism, and imperialism, but also one with strong traditions of popular revolution, republicanism, and human rights. The key event in its modern history was the Revolution of 1789, which toppled an absolute monarchy and formed the country's first republican government, but it took nearly a century for a stable democratic political system to be established. In 1958, the constitution of the country’s Fifth Republic was approved by referendum. France today has one of the world's strongest democracies and largest economies. Its powerful presidency, unusual for Europe where a parliamentary system is more common, is balanced by its constitutional limits. The National Assembly has powers to approve or censure the government and pass laws and budgets; an upper house reviews and approves Assembly actions. The system is strengthened by two constitutional courts, an independent media, a vibrant civil society, and an intellectual tradition of free speech and critical debate. 

France’s political and social system, as well as its constitutional protections of human rights, has been challenged in recent years, especially by a series of terrorist attacks carried out by members or supporters of the Islamic State. In response, President Francoise Hollande proposed constitutional changes enhancing presidential powers against terrorist threats.

France is Western Europe's largest country by area. Including overseas regions, it ranks 41st in the world in size. Its total population in 2015 (also including overseas departments and territories) is about 67 million people. By economic measurements, France is among the world's most successful countries. According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), it had Europe's third largest economy (after Germany and the United Kingdom) in 2014. Its nominal GDP ranked sixth largest in the world at more than $2.8 trillion in total output. In 2015, nominal per capita gross national income (GNI) ranked 20th in the world at approximately $38,000. France has a mixed economy that combines a high degree of state spending (the highest in Europe at 57.2 percent of GDP) with a vibrant free market economy. Out of 167 countries, France ranked 23rd in Transparency International’s corruption index for 2015. 


Gaul, the area that later became called France, was conquered in the first century BC by the Romans. After the collapse of the Roman Empire five centuries later, the Frankish kingdom established by Clovis I gained control over large parts of the territory. That kingdom was expanded by Charlemagne in the mid-eight century AD (the Carolingian Empire). France emerged as a broader political unit later, in the 10th century, when kings based in the Paris area began to assert royal authority over the surrounding regions. Over the subsequent centuries, French kings also had to contend with the rulers of England, who claimed sovereignty over large parts of the northeast of the country. By the reign of Francis I (1515–47), the royal government had extended its control almost to the borders of modern France.

Painting of "Combat Quiberon 1795" by Jean Sorieul, illustrating a Battle during the French Revolution

Wars of Religion and the Edict of Nantes

The rise of Protestantism among French nobility and townsmen brought France into a series of bloody civil conflicts beginning in 1562. The minority who converted to Protestantism (known as Huguenots) were subject to repression and massacres. Henry IV, a Protestant and the first king of the Bourbon dynasty, defended his succession to the throne with military victories over his Catholic enemies, but then converted his religion to gain the acceptance of his overwhelmingly Catholic subjects. To prevent further unrest, he issued the Edict of Nantes in 1598, which provided Protestants with freedom of worship and civic equality. Henry's son and successor, Louis XIII (1610–43), and his chief minister, Cardinal Richelieu, undermined the Edict of Nantes and brutally suppressed the resulting Huguenot rebellion of 1625–29. Due to its rivalry with Catholic Spain and Austria, however, France intervened on the Protestant side during the Thirty Years War (1618–48). The Peace of Westphalia, which ended the wars of religion, asserted the principle of state sovereignty and thus the right of states to determine their own religion. For France's next king, Louis XIV (1643–1715), this meant further repression of Protestant worship and the full revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. 

The Absolutist State and The Revolution of 1789 

Louis XIV is also known for centralizing the state and economy. His principal financial minister, Jean Baptiste Colbert, is considered the father of mercantilism, which emphasized the national accumulation of gold and silver through increased exports and internal self-sufficiency (see also Economic Freedom). Over the course of the 18th century, the government was plagued by fiscal crises as a result of foreign wars and extensive aristocratic privileges. In this period, many French intellectuals were influenced by the Enlightenment and its criticism of arbitrary monarchical rule and its lack of representative institutions. 

In 1788, economic difficulties caused by the country’s severe national debt led King Louis XVI to call a rare gathering of the Estates-General, which brought together representatives of the nobility, the clergy, and lower gentry. When it met, in June 1789, the "third estate" rejected the authority of nobles and clerics, declared itself a National Assembly, and sought to introduce a constitution. When Louis XVI rejected any limitations on his authority, the citizens of Paris revolted on July 14 and stormed the Bastille, a major prison and armory. The uprising quickly took the form of a national revolution. The National Assembly adopted the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, which went further than the original US Constitution in asserting citizens' basic rights. Yet, despite the document's republican language, most delegates of the Assembly still hoped to establish a constitutional monarchy, not a popular democracy. Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen went further even than the original US Constitution in asserting citizens’ basic rights.

The Revolution grew more radical after Austria and other European powers launched a war to restore Louis XVI. In 1792, the new National Convention, elected by universal male suffrage, abolished the monarchy and established a republic. The king and his wife, Marie Antoinette, were apprehended trying to flee the country and beheaded. The French Revolution, however, did not create a stable political system. The most extreme factions of the National Convention, led by the Jacobins, established a dictatorship of revolutionary committees. The period of 1793–94, when Maximilien Robespierre was the dominant leader, is known as the Reign of Terror. Robespierre and his allies, justifying their actions as necessary to save the republic from its internal and foreign enemies, had thousands of people arrested, tried, and then executed by guillotine.

The National Convention finally turned against the Terror, deposing and executing Robespierre. A new constitution was adopted creating a bicameral legislature and a five-member executive called the Directory. Challenged by opponents on the left and right, the Directory became dependent on the support of the military. Army general Napoleon Bonaparte then seized power in a coup in 1799, calling himself the “first consul” of the republic. Assuming absolute powers, he proclaimed himself Emperor Napoleon I in 1804 and engaged in a grandiose military campaign to establish a French empire over all of continental Europe. He was forced to retreat from Moscow in 1812 after an unsuccessful and costly siege and was finally defeated by the British in the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. 

The Second and Third Republics 

Napoleon’s defeat in 1815 resulted in the restoration of the Bourbon dynasty, albeit with a constitution and elected legislature to limit royal power. When the king attempted to reassert elements of absolutism, an 1830 revolt placed Louis Philippe, the Duc d'Orleans, on the throne. The electoral franchise remained limited under the new monarchy and disenfranchised groups rose up in 1848 to establish a Second Republic. It, too, proved brief. Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, the former emperor's nephew, won election as president of the new republic later that year, but as his constitutionally limited single term in office drew to a close he also staged a coup and in 1852 had himself confirmed by plebiscite as Emperor Napoleon III. He (like his uncle) was deposed following a failed military campaign, this time France's crushing defeat in the Franco-Prussian War (1870–71). A Third Republic was established. One of the first actions of the Third Republic’s political and military leaders was to brutally suppress a challenge by the leftist Paris Commune — which represented the radical tradition of the French Revolution — in 1871. Despite its violent beginnings, the Third Republic went on to become the longest-lasting constitutional system in France's history, surviving until 1940.

Vichy: A Shameful Era

The Third Republic, weakened by economic depression and political division in the 1930s, collapsed in the face of the Nazi German invasion in 1940. Marshal Henri Philippe Pétain, a hero of World War I and the republic's prime minister, agreed to an armistice whose terms allowed German forces to occupy and administer the north of the country, including Paris, but established Pétain as the “chief of state” of a puppet regime based in the city of Vichy to administer France’s southern regions and its overseas territories. When the Nazis militarily occupied all of France in 1942, the Vichy government continued to function and cooperate fully with the Germans. Vichy authorities hunted down and executed resistance fighters, contributed French labor and resources to the German war effort, and helped to round up hundreds of thousands of Jews for deportation to Nazi death camps, where they were murdered. French citizens, however, risked their lives to resist the German occupation and aid the Allies’ war effort through sabotage and guerilla action.

Many French citizens, however, risked their lives to resist the German occupation and aid the Allies’ war effort through sabotage and guerilla action. General Charles de Gaulle established a government-in-exile in London and a “Free French” Army, which participated in the liberation of northern Africa and Europe. The Vichy regime collapsed following the successful June 6, 1944 Normandy invasion and Allied conquest of France. A provisional government headed by de Gaulle was succeeded in 1946 by the Fourth Republic, which was similar in constitutional structure to the Third. The Communist Party, active in the wartime resistance, gained strength immediately after the war, raising fears that France would align itself with the Soviet Union. However, France's other political parties helped to rebuild the country on a democratic footing, bolstered by American aid through the Marshall Plan. France emerged as one of Europe's strongest economies and led in the creation of the European Economic Community.

French Colonialism, the Struggle for Decolonialization, and the Establishment of the Fifth Republic

France was an active participant in the European race to build colonial empires around the world. Although it lost its North American possessions to the British in 1763, France retained a number of Caribbean islands as well as French Guiana in the Western Hemisphere. Napoleon I briefly regained a section of North America after conquering Spain, but, in need of money to finance his conquest of continental Europe, he sold much of it to the United States in the 1803 Louisiana Purchase. Over the course of the 19th century, France colonized parts of Southeast Asia, North and West Africa, and islands in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. It also joined Great Britain in dividing the Middle East after World War I, taking responsibility for Syria and Lebanon. In the two decades following World War II, European countries dismantled their colonial empires, leaving independent states in their place. Under the Fourth Republic, France's overseas empire was reorganized as the French Union, which ostensibly granted more autonomy to the colonies, but this failed to satisfy the desires for independence on the part of France’s colonial subjects. Vietnamese forces compelled the French to withdraw from Southeast Asia in 1954 and nearly all other French colonies gained independence over the next decade.

After losing control over neighboring Tunisia and Morocco in North Africa, however, France made a last colonial stand in Algeria, where many French colonists had settled since the first French invasion in 1830. After years of brutal violence and political turmoil in which the French government contended with both Algerian nationalists and also militant colonists and intransigent French army factions, Algeria gained independence in 1962. In the face of open threats by right-wing elements to the constitutional system during the Algerian war, a Fifth Republic was established in 1958 under a new constitution that created a stronger presidency to assert control over the security forces (see below). Under the new constitution, the French Union was reformed into a looser political association called the French Community, similar to the British Commonwealth. This association allowed many colonial territories to declare independence (but not, at first, Algeria), but a number of territories remained part of France as overseas departments, collectivities, or sui generis territories. Residents of all these parts of the French Community are French citizens who vote in French elections.

Constitutional Limits

Unlike Great Britain, where the power of the monarchy had been limited by the evolution of a more representative political system, France’s monarchy remained absolute. The French Revolution introduced strong republican traditions and a sweeping declaration of citizens’ rights, but, as shown in the brief history presented above, it did not create a stable democratic or representative system. France’s next 82 years experienced two republics, two empires, two monarchies, and multiple constitutions. Only with the introduction of the Third Republic in 1871 did a more stable political system with more stable constitutional limits and democratic representation emerge. Both the Third Republic and its re-establishment as the Fourth Republic after World War II had a constitutionally strong but politically divided parliament and a relatively weak executive branch. During the war for Algerian independence in the 1950s, right-wing elements within the military and security forces threatened again to undermine the state. Charles de Gaulle, whose national authority was preeminent as the leader of the Free French army, returned from political retirement in 1958 to set about establishing a more stable Fifth Republic, which he led for the next decade as president. The constitution, which was approved by public referendum in September 1958, included a stronger presidency with greater control over state functions. The new constitution was amended in 1962 to provide for direct election of the president and again in 2000 to reduce the term of the presidency from seven to five years (in each case with a two-term limit).

The Fifth Republic: A Semi-Presidential System

Today, France is a republic with a mixed presidential-parliamentary system of government, also known as a semi-presidential system. Both the president and members of the National Assembly are elected in a two-round electoral system. Under it, candidates must win by a majority vote in the first round or in a second-round run-off of the two top candidates from the first round. The president, serving as the head of state, is elected directly to a five-year term (until 2002 it was seven years), with the possibility of one re-election. The president appoints the prime minister and cabinet, but since the legislative branch retains the right of censure to overthrow a government, the Prime Minister is usually from the majority party in parliament even if the president is from another party. The president sets overall government policy and has responsibility for national security and foreign policy, including direct command of the armed forces. The president has the power to dissolve Parliament before the end of its term and order new elections as well as to rule by decree in emergencies. The prime minister and other ministers are responsible for the implementation of government policy, making more detailed, day-to-day decisions.

The Parliament, which is bicameral, meets for a nine-month session each year. The lower house, the National Assembly, is the principal legislative body. It has 577 deputies who are directly elected by constituencies to five-year terms (including 11 deputies from overseas territories, which total 2.7 million residents). All seats are open in a general election. In addition to the power to vote in (or bring down) a prime minister and cabinet, the National Assembly approves the national budget and all laws. Members of the upper house, the Senate, numbering 348, are chosen by an electoral college made up of the elected officials from administrative départements or regions (12 senators represent French districts abroad). Senators serve six years, with one-half of the seats up for election every three years. The Senate may amend bills and initiate some forms of legislation, but the National Assembly can overrule in any disagreement. The National Assembly and Senate together may amend the constitution.

The Other Foundations of the Constitution

The current French constitution establishes the rights and freedoms of the citizenry and proclaims the people's "attachment" to the original Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen from 1789. Institutional safeguards of those rights include two formal institutions. One is the Constitutional Council, made up of former presidents and nine appointed members (three each appointed by the president, the National Assembly, and the Senate). It examines the constitutionality of all legislation referred to it by Parliament, the prime minister, or the president before being allowed to be signed into law. Since 2010, it may also hear appeals brought by individuals as to the constitutionality of decisions of lower courts, making its role as a guarantor of human rights more important (see Current Issues below). The second institution is the Council of State, made up of government officers and legal experts, which advises the government and parliament on constitutional questions or claims brought by individual citizens.

While there are some notable restrictions on free speech, including a seldom-enforced prohibition against insulting the president, the constitution’s protections of human rights and the country's vigorous intellectual tradition are among the most important checks on governmental power in France. These two factors foster a strong independent media, civic institutions, and a culture of commentary and criticism in which individuals exercise their rights of free inquiry, expression, thought, and conscience. France's media, while often having definite political orientations, operate independently of any political party.

The constitution is less clear on the equal status of immigrants, an issue that has gained prominence in recent years due to high immigration from former French colonies, especially those of Northern Africa.  Roughly 10 percent of the population is foreign-born, mostly from Muslim countries. Many others were born in France to immigrant parents. A series of urban riots in 2005 and 2007, prompted by accidental killings of youth by police, highlighted the problem of immigrants’ rights, their social status, and their economic conditions. Protesters complained that police anti-crime campaigns targeted immigrants and were marked by pervasive acts of discrimination. In response, the government announced increased efforts to ensure education, job training, employment and social services for immigrants.

Political Parties, Elections and Cohabitation limits are undergirded by elections and France’s multiparty system, which has established a regular alternation of power between the more conservative Gaulist party and the more liberal and socialist non-Gaulist parties.

Constitutional limits are undergirded by elections and France’s multiparty system, which has established a regular alternation of power between the more conservative Gaulist party and the more liberal and socialist non-Gaulist parties. After Charles De Gaulle served from 1958 to 1969 and was succeeded by a hand-picked successor, the next three presidential elections were won by non-Gaulists (in 1974, by Valery Giscard d’Estaing, leading a centrist party, and in 1981 and 1988 by the Socialist Party leader François Mitterand). Jacques Chirac, leading the Gaulist Rally for the Republic (RPR), won back the presidency from the Socialists in 1995. In 2002, he defeated the far right National Front candidate, Jean Marie Le Pen, who came in a surprising second in the first round. Chirac won the second round with the highest percentage of the vote in French history (82 percent). The RPR’s Nicolas Sarkozy succeeded Chirac in the 2007 election (the first with a five-year term), but the Socialist Party’s Françoise Hollande, the current president, defeated Sarkozy in 2012, again alternating power between parties. While the president has mostly presided over a parliament controlled by the same party, the mixed presidential-parliamentary system led to periods of split government, which the French call cohabitation, with majorities in parliament being from different political parties than that of the president. This happened in Mitterand’s presidency (from 1986 to 1988 and from 1993 to 1995) and in Chirac’s first presidency (from 1997 to 2002). Since then, the president’s party and the party in control of parliament have coincided.

Alliances and Their Constraints

France was a founding member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO (1949) and the European Coal and Steel Community (1952), which eventually grew into the European Union. These institutions established strong treaty obligations. Membership in the Council of Europe requires adoption of the European Convention on Human Rights, which is based on the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights (see Human Rights). President Charles De Gaulle withdrew France from NATO's military command structure in 1966, but France rejoined NATO’s Military Committee in 1995 and has since participated in joint NATO actions in the Balkans and Afghanistan and it took the leading role in the 2011 NATO campaign in Libya to thwart the threat by its leader Muammar Gadhafi to carry out mass slaughter of his own people (Gadhafi was later overthrown and executed by opposition Libyan forces.)

France has also played a leading role in the European Union, especially in supporting steps toward greater economic, monetary, and political integration. In recent times, French presidents have resisted EU requirements to adopt specific budget changes or to alter farm subsidies that benefit French agriculture. In a 2005 referendum, French voters rejected a proposed EU constitution due to perceived encroachments on sovereignty, among other concerns. Nevertheless, France, under both the Gaulist Sarkozy and his Socialist successor Hollande, continues to back a strong EU in partnership with Germany.

Current Issues

Since the 2012 presidential and parliamentary elections, François Hollande has lost popularity due to corruption scandals and the failure of seemingly contradictory policies that mixed austerity, high taxes, and greater state-interventionist policies. In response to laggard growth and low approval ratings, in early 2014 Hollande adopted a more economically liberal plan to increase investment, lower taxes on business, and cut public spending. (France has the EU’s highest level of taxation, at 45 percent of GDP, and state spending, at 57 percent of GDP, and faces EU penalties if it does not reduce its budget deficit.) To address high unemployment, Hollande also approved legislation to ease employment requirements for hiring contract workers, who now constitute a majority of French employees.

Although there is a strong tradition of freedom of expression in France, laws stemming from France’s experience in World War II aim to limit public hate and anti-Semitic speech as well as the denial of the Holocaust. Newer laws outlaw the denial of the Armenian genocide and propagation of child pornography. A new domestic security law, in effect since March 2011, allows the filtering of online content on the basis of these restrictions on speech and a separate decree requires internet companies to provide user data, including passwords, to authorities if requested to prosecute violators. State authorities claim that they focus mainly on prosecuting the propagation of child pornography, but in 2013 Twitter was obliged to give prosecutors data that identified users who posted anti-Semitic comments following a court order in suits filed by Jewish and anti-racism organizations.

The French authorities have frequently used the country’s anti-hate speech laws to prosecute the former leader of the National Front Party, Jean Marie Le Pen, for denial of the Holocaust and anti-Semitic statements; he has been repeatedly found guilty, fined, and given suspended jail terms. His daughter, Marine Le Pen, succeeded him as party leader and has gained greater popularity by tamping down more extreme and discriminatory statements from party officials and tying the party’s anti-immigrant platform to economic issues. She herself, however, was indicted for hate speech offenses in 2010 and now faces these charges in court after her immunity as a member of the European Parliament was removed by a vote of her colleagues in July 2013. Such prosecutions, however, have not affected the National Front’s growth in popularity under Marie Le Pen. The National Front outpolls both the RPR and Socialist Party nationally and led all parties with 26 percent in the June 2014 European Parliament vote. It reached near majorities in many regions in local elections in 2015 and failed to win a majority in any region in the election’s second round only by an informal alliance of the RPR and Socialist Parties. Presidential elections to be held in the spring of 2017 will pit the increasingly popular Marine Le Pen against the conservative anti-immigrant politician of the RPR, François Fillon, and the Socialist Party candidate Benoît Hamon.

The French state’s treatment of immigrants, especially those from North Africa who practice Islam, remains a dominant national issue. One law has pitted religious traditions of Muslim immigrants against the French state’s longstanding practice of laïcité, the principle of strict separation of religion and the state that dates to the French Revolution and France’s previous repression of Protestantism. In general, laïcité bans religious displays in state-funded settings, such as public schools. In 2010, reacting to a perceived growth of religious extremism, then-President Sarkozy introduced a bill to ban the wearing by women of full-face veils (niqabs) and full-body coverings (burqas). Although not common in France, such coverings are used among more traditional Muslims and generally considered by non-Muslims to be an expression of religious fundamentalism and oppression of women. A bill passed overwhelmingly in parliament in 2011 that established relatively small fines for women wearing niqabs or burqas and much higher fines for men who force their wives or relatives to wear them (up to 30,000 Euros). While the law was not aggressively enforced, there were reports of violent attacks by citizens on women with more commonly worn head scarves. In late June 2014, the European Court for Human Rights held that the law was “a legitimate attempt to preserve the norms of France’s diverse society” and did not violate the European Convention on Human Rights. In another case, however, a young woman who was fired from a day care center for refusing to remove her head scarf on the job site successfully appealed to France’s highest appeals court, which reversed a lower court ruling and held that the woman’s discharge was discriminatory and contrary to France’s employment laws. The two cases demonstrate the conflicting constitutional interpretations regarding the practice of religion within France.

Multiple terrorist attacks in Paris and other cities in 2015 and 2016 carried out by supporters or members of the fanatical Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have created a general atmosphere of suspicion of France’s Muslim communities, since most of the attackers were French residents or citizens who had been radicalized in support of violent jihad. While overall the organized Muslim community and the great majority of Muslims express support for the French constitution, there has been an increase in adherents of radical jihad within France in recent years. In response to mass shootings in multiple locations in November 2015 that killed 130 people and wounded hundreds more, France’s President Hollande ordered a temporary state of emergency and suspended several constitutional provisions (allowed under the constitution) in order to allow police to carry out warrantless searches at hundreds of locations, close down mosques, hold individuals in custody without charge, carry out generalized searches of vehicles and individuals, and monitor telecommunications of French citizens. The National Assembly is considering constitutional amendments requested by the President to make these expanded police powers more permanent to respond to the threat of terrorism.


Constitutional Limits on Government: History


The Magna Carta

Modern constitutional limits on government are commonly traced to the Magna Carta of England, also known as Magna Carta Libertatum (or the Great Charter of Liberties). Signed in 1215 by King John, it is considered one of the most important foundation stones of constitutionalism. The agreement followed a rebellion of feudal barons against King John's ineffectual rule and his attempts to impose his authority and additional taxes by force. The nobility obliged King John to limit his powers through a formal written agreement, establishing the principle that even monarchs claiming the divine right to rule had to uphold existing laws and customs and respect the privileges and property rights of their subjects. Magna Carta’s most important restriction was the king’s obligation to seek the consent of the nobility, the clergy, the gentry, and townsmen before imposing taxes. . .

The Magna Carta’s most important restriction was the king's obligation to seek the consent of the nobility, the clergy, the gentry, and townsmen before imposing taxes (and by extension before raising an army for war). In fact, the Magna Carta was not the original limitation of the king’s powers: it is an expansion of an original Charter of Liberties adopted in 1100 by Henry I. However, it was these expanded provisions that laid the basis for further limits on the monarch’s powers. Out of the adoption of the Magna Carta evolved an early incarnation of England’s modern Parliament, which met first under Edward I in 1295. This first parliament included major noblemen, leaders of the Catholic Church, and representatives of the counties and towns. The territorial representatives (common tax-payers) were later separated in 1341 from an upper House of Lords (that comprised only richer noblemen and high clergy) to form the lower and initially less powerful House of Commons. Notably, each district represented in the House of Commons could set its own rules for electing its members. Eventually, the Commons settled on freehold ownership of property worth 40 shillings as the basic requirement for the right to vote. This rule remained in place well into the modern era. As a result of inflation, this provision resulted in a gradual expansion of the right to vote to smaller property owners. (Some US states adopted the same 40 shilling requirement in their initial constitutions.)

The British Model

It is a paradox that the principle of constitutional limits evolved in a country, England, where no formal constitution was ever adopted. Today, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, known simply as the UK, continues to be governed according to an accumulation of parliamentary law, treaty, tradition, and practice. Over the centuries, the House of Commons came to dominate the "upper" House of Lords due to its more representative nature. Today, the House of Commons is the true focal point of political power, while the monarch has become a ceremonial head of state who only formally establishes the government based on the leading party in parliament. The House of Lords now consists largely of members appointed for life by the monarch on the recommendation of the prime minister, yet some high-ranking clergy and hereditary peers remain. The House of Lords can no longer prevent final enactment of legislation, but it retains oversight and persuasive powers and recently has asserted its rights to return legislation for further deliberation. A select group of members known as the Law Lords serve as the country's court of highest appeal, although efforts are currently under way to create a separate Supreme Court to take on this function.

The US Model

As already noted in Consent of the Governed and Free Elections, the framers of the US Constitution were concerned with the dangers of arbitrary government and an overbearing executive. Drawing their ideas from republican Rome, the writings of John Locke, and the Baron de Montesquieu's The Spirit of Laws, the framers crafted a model of government based on the principle of separation of powers in which executive, legislative, and judicial branches are divided and their powers specified so that no one branch, and especially not the executive, can dominate the others.

The executive branch is headed by a president who, with the vice president, holds the only nationally elected office and is thus the representative of all the people. The president's chief responsibility, however, is carrying out the laws passed by the bicameral Congress. While the president has the power to veto legislation, this veto may be overridden by a two-thirds majority of each house of Congress, ensuring that the president's check on legislative power is itself not absolute. The president is the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, but only Congress may formally declare or authorize war. (In recent decades presidents have gone around this provision by declaring the authority to engage in emergency military actions under “the War Powers Act,” but ultimately Congress retains its “power of the purse” and can limit or end spending for any military endeavor.) The president appoints executive officers, including ambassadors, as well as federal judges, but the Senate must advise and consent to them. . . [T]he framers crafted a model of government based on the principle of separation of powers in which executive, legislative, and judicial branches are divided and their powers specified so that no one branch, and especially not the executive, can dominate the others.

The legislature is divided into two chambers. The House of Representatives is elected by popular vote in districts allotted to the states according to population. The Senate is made up of two members from each state regardless of population (so that Wyoming, the smallest by population, is equal to California, the largest). The House, elected every two years, is the "people's voice," while the Senate, whose members are elected to six-year terms, is designed to temper changing popular opinion and serve as a bulwark against dominance by larger states. Legislation regarding revenue and expenditures originates in the House; the Senate may amend and must approve all legislation. It also holds “advise and consent” power to approve not only presidential appointments but also international treaties. The federal judiciary is protected from both elected branches of government through lifetime appointment. Federal judges may be removed only by impeachment (equivalent to an indictment) for “high crimes and misdemeanors” by the House of Representatives and then by conviction in a trial of the Senate. The House and Senate possess equivalent power to impeach and convict Presidents. The US Supreme Court is the final court of appeal, and its interpretation of laws and the Constitution must be respected by the states and other branches of government as “the law of the land.”

Amendments to the Constitution, especially the first 10, known as the Bill of Rights, and the post–Civil War 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, expanded the federal government’s reach to protect all citizens’ rights. (The latter three amendments abolished slavery, ensured that the states upheld federally protected rights, and conferred citizenship and voting rights on former slaves.) At the same time, the tenth amendment limits the federal government by establishing that individual states are granted all governmental powers not enumerated for the federal government in the Constitution, meaning they have autonomy with respect to local affairs such as education, police, and other community services. States have their own constitutions that are generally organized under similar principles as the federal charter, with three branches of government: an executive (governor), a legislature, and a state court system.

The country's multilayered system of constitutional government is often blamed for a lack of timely and decisive action on important matters. This was most notably the case on the issue of slavery, as southern states, despite being a minority in population, long retained the power to block antislavery initiatives through the Senate and the high bar for changing the constitution that requires three-fourths of the states to approve amendments. This debate has resumed in recent decades as many serious issues have remained unresolved as a result of divided government and political gridlock. Still, many scholars consider the layered constitutional limits in the US system to be a key reason for America's stability and success as a democracy.

European Models

While most European countries passed through periods of absolute monarchy before building the institutions of democracy, some maintained considerable checks on their rulers. In the case of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (1569–1795), a quasi-democratic system was instituted through a covenant called the Henrician Articles. These reserved great powers for the nobility, who made up the Sejm, or parliament. The monarchy became a non-hereditary position elected by the Sejm and the king could not raise taxes or declare war without the nobles' consent. Weakened by internal division, foreign interference, and warfare, the Commonwealth in 1791 adopted a constitution aimed at strengthening the state by extending political rights beyond the nobility and forming a stable parliamentary monarchy. Its autocratic neighbors, Austria, Russia, and Germany, viewed the reformed state as a threat and occupied and partitioned Polish territory for the next 125 years. Poland regained independence only after World War I in 1918 (see Country Study of Poland).

Today, many European countries (such as Spain, Netherlands, Norway, and Sweden) retain a formal constitutional monarchy with some type of parliamentary system, although, unlike the United Kingdom, they have written constitutions with clear limits on power and definitions of lawful authority. The other major European model is that of France, which since 1958 has been a mixed presidential-parliamentary system whereby the president acts as head of state and plays a leading role in setting national policies, particularly foreign and security policies (see Country Study of France in this section). Among other major European countries, Poland and the Czech Republic, among others, have adopted a mixed presidential-parliamentary system to France, while in others, like Germany and Italy, presidents are elected by parliaments and have more limited roles.

In both parliamentary and mixed-presidential systems, there are constitutional limits established through a separation of powers, including an independent judiciary and systems of rule of law and the protection of human rights within national constitutions. Basic human rights are further protected today through ratification of the European Convention on Human Rights, a requirement of membership in the Council of Europe which reiterates and expands on U.N. international human rights covenants. In some countries, like Italy, Switzerland, and Sweden, regional systems have been adopted in which basic autonomy of local governance and minority rights are also respected.

The Rise of Dictatorship

The 19th-century historian Lord Acton once wrote, "Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely." Such was the case in many countries during much of the 20th century when democracy's progress was challenged by the rise of military juntas, nationalist dictatorships, and autocracy, as well as new types of dictatorship, such as apartheid in South Africa, theocracy in Iran, and Fascist and Communist regimes. These latter regimes, which were based on specific political ideologies, abused power so completely that historical examples of autocracy appeared liberal by comparison. Certainly the death toll of Fascist and Communist regimes was without precedent. Adolf Hitler's Nazi regime in Germany caused the deaths of tens of millions of people through war, deprivation, and mass execution, including the genocide of six million Jews (two-thirds of Europe's prewar Jewish population). There is considerable debate about the number of people killed under Communist regimes, but reasonable estimates surpass 100 million. Most of these deaths occurred in the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China, and include fatalities from executions, forced labor, and massive famine that was caused by deliberate state policies. Both types of regimes claimed legitimacy through constitutions. Communist variants included lengthy assertions of "people's rights," but in practice there were no actual protections against the abuse of state power since ultimate authority was granted to the ruling communist party. A Polish democratic theorist, Jakub Karpiński, described the operating principle of Communist constitutions:

Ornamental institutions functioned as screens for other institutions in which real decisions were made. The parliament and the "collective head of state," under the name of the Council of State, were screens for the Political Bureau and other agencies of the Central Committee of the Communist Party or even other less formal groups of party functionaries who made real decisions. Decisions in the ruling communist parties were usually made without restraint.

The Expansion of Democracy and its Ebb

The adoption of democracy and basic constitutional limits of power has increased steadily since the defeat of the Axis Powers and their affiliated states in World War II. Indeed, under the initial oversight of the US and other victorious Allied powers, the war’s militaristic instigators — Germany, Italy and Japan — all became established democracies with clear constitutional limits on the system of governance. In 1948, Israel emerged as a stable democracy in the Middle East, while India came out from under British colonial rule to establish the world’s largest democracy. In 1974-75, popular movements for democracy in Spain, Portugal and Greece succeeded in overthrowing military dictatorships. Decolonization in the 1950s and 1960s initially saw more dictatorships than democratic governments replace colonial administration in many countries of Asia and Africa. Starting in the late 1970s, however, “people power” and other reform movements brought about a progressive adoption of democracy and constitutional systems protecting human rights in an increasing number of African and Asian countries as well as in most countries of Latin America. The Soviet Union retained its totalitarian system after World War II and expanded its military and political control over a bloc of eastern European countries that the Red Army had occupied during the war. The Soviet bloc (formalized in the Warsaw Pact) posed a challenge to the Western alliance of democratic countries during the Cold War, a conflict that lasted 40 years. Ultimately, however, communism was overthrown by a series of popular revolutions, first in the Eastern bloc countries in 1989 and then in the Soviet Union itself from 1989 to 1991. The USSR was formally dissolved in December 1991.

Since 2005, the trend towards democracy appears to have ebbed. The 2017 Survey of Freedom in the World by Freedom House reports the eleventh straight year in which scores in civil liberties and political rights declined in more countries than they increased. Indeed, a majority of the world’s people still live in countries categorized as “not free” (35 percent) or “partly free” (25 percent), that is in systems where constitutional limits are either not respected at all or only partially so.

A brief review of regions makes clear the continuing lack of constitutional limits and democratic freedoms. Many countries emerging from the former Soviet Union replaced communist dictatorship with authoritarian rule, most notably the Russian Federation (see also country studies of Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and, in this section, Uzbekistan). Since the death of its original fanatical and murderous leader, Mao Zedong, the People’s Republic of China has adopted a hybrid communist political system with capitalist economic features but still has no real constitutional limits on state power and no protections of human rights (see Country Studies of China in Freedom of Expression and Freedom of Association). Most Middle Eastern countries retain monarchies or authoritarian governments and continue to resist constitutional limits on power and democratic change (see Country Studies of Morocco, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Syria), with some notable exceptions (see Country Studies of Israel, established in 1948, and Tunisia). In Latin America, Cuba (see Country Study in Economic Freedom) remains the most flagrant violator of human rights, while such “partly free” countries as Bolivia, Venezuela, and Guatemala reflect the difficult history on the continent of South America in establishing stable democratic systems with constitutional protections against abuse of power (see, respectively, the Country Studies in Consent of the Governed, Free Elections, and Constitutional Limits).

Still, even with the ebbing in democratic advances, the change since the end of World War II, when there were only about two dozen stable democracies, is impressive. Overall, from 1973, when Freedom House began its Survey of Freedom in the World, to 2005, the world saw a substantial rise in the number of “free countries” (from 40 to 90). Although countries designated “free” often continue to have many ongoing debates and difficulties regarding fundamental issues of rule of law, human rights, respect for minorities, and even basic governance, such countries have generally respected constitutional protections of human rights, established limits on the exercise of power, and political systems with sufficiently free and fair elections to allow non-violent changes in power between competing parties or blocs and peaceful resolutions of political and social conflicts through constitutional means.

Constitutional Limits on Government: Essential Principles

 Essential Principles

 "In the government of this commonwealth, the legislative department shall never exercise the
executive and judicial powers, or either of them: the executive shall never exercise the legislative
and judicial powers, or either of them: the judicial shall never exercise the legislative and
executive powers, or either of them: to the end it may be a government of laws and not of men."

Massachusetts Constitution, Part the First, Article XXX, 1780

Limiting the Power of the State American founders were deeply skeptical of direct popular rule. Repre-sentative democracy, they argued, was far superior because the buffer it created between the people and state policy allowed for reflection, reasoned debate, and compromise between opposing interests.

The original purpose of establishing formal or constitutional limits on government was to check the arbitrary actions of hereditary monarchs or rulers who abused their power, imposed unwanted taxes, or launched unpopular wars. Using written agreements like the Magna Carta or unwritten agreements, nobles with substantial property forced the principle of restraint on the rule of European monarchs by establishing consultative or representative institutions. Over centuries, through popular revolutions or the evolution of more representative institutions like parliaments, there developed greater checks on executive power and a separation of government into independent branches exercising distinct powers of the state. Rulers could no longer act unilaterally to enact decrees against the will of the people and instead had to gain approval from parliaments, having increasing popular representation, for passing laws and obey the judgments of courts, established to interpret the law (see History). 

Self-Governance and Constitutional Limits 

The modern experiment of popular self-governance, which began in the late 18th century in the United States, established the legitimacy of state power through the people's will rather than on a monarch or the interests of the nobility and gentry. The people, formerly only subjects of the crown having few rights, became citizens with full and equal rights, regardless of class. In turn, the government, became the instrument for carrying out the people's will as expressed through their elected representatives. Mindful of the experience of tyrannical monarchy, newly self-governing societies adopted constitutional limits that defined the specific authority of the state, forbade it from violating basic rights, and divided government into distinct branches that would check and balance one another so that no single branch could amass too much power. Although the idea of self-government in the US originally applied only to white males with sufficient property — and coexisted with the heinous practice of slavery — over time, the concept expanded to all persons. Today, self-governance is universally understood to mean a government that is, as Abraham Lincoln asserted,  “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” 

Direct and Representative Democracy 

Some political philosophers have argued that direct democracy — in which all citizens vote directly on the laws and policies of a political community — is the ideal form of government. Direct democracy, however, has generally proved impractical and there are few examples of it in history. Even ancient Athens, in which all major decisions were determined by a democratic assembly of all its male citizens, relied on elected officials for the daily functioning of the city-state (see History). In the U.S., town hall meetings, where basic policies of small municipalities are adopted by vote of those present, also serve as mechanisms for the election of representative officials. Similarly, within local associations and trade unions, members elect officers and committees to carry out their decisions. Indeed, while some decisions may or even should be made by referendum (all citizens voting on a particular issue), few sizable groups of citizens have conducted their affairs on the basis of direct democracy.

The American founders were deeply skeptical of direct popular rule. Representative democracy, they argued, was far superior because the buffer it created between the people and state policy allowed for reflection, reasoned debate, and compromise between opposing interests. Direct democracy to them meant the potential of tyranny of the majority over the minority or worse, mob rule without any restraint on transient popular impulses or abuses of power. Today, democracy is generally understood as a system of freely elected representative institutions with constitutional limits. In the U.S., that meant a bi-cameral legislature in which popular and territorial interests would be balanced, and divided powers among branches of government and constituent states. (See also "Consent of the Governed," and "Majority Rule, Minority Rights.") 

Parliamentary Democracy

This understanding of representative democracy applies both to the parliamentary system, in which an executive prime minister and cabinet are chosen by the majority party or coalition in the legislature, and to presidential and mixed presidential-parliamentary systems of government, in which a separately elected president holds many or all executive powers. The parliamentary system is the most common among the world's electoral democracies. Since the executive branch is directly appointed by the legislative branch in parliamentary systems, in effect combining these powers, it has fewer constitutional checks and balances among the branches than presidential or mixed systems. However, the basic principle of limited government is upheld and abuse of power (including the “tyranny of the majority”) is restrained through parliamentary opposition parties as well as by tradition, the rule of law, ombudsmen, independent news media, and in some cases a constitutional monarchy. Constitutional monarchs today are typically limited to symbolic functions, but they often retain formal power of establishing the government and thus can play a stabilizing or mediating role in times of political crisis and protect against abuse of power.


The opposite, indeed the antithesis, of popular self-governance and constitutional limits on power is dictatorship, in which a single ruler or group assumes control over the government without constitutional limits. A dictatorship may have a constitution, but in practice its provisions serve to expand rather than limit the powers of the state and grants most if not all authority over the state’s powers to the leader or a dominant group. Under such regimes, the constitution or laws can often be changed with little or no real input from the people or their representatives. The result is extensive abuse of power (the terrible consequences of which can be found in the Not Free category of the Country Studies of each section). Occasionally, dictatorships adopt liberal constitutional provisions or hold rigged “elections” to powerless legislative bodies for appearance's sake or to placate international opinion. Some constitutions, such as those of communist “people’s democracies,” pledge full adherence to basic principles of human rights or self-governance, but include language that gives a higher authority — a leader or a ruling party — the absolute power to override those principles in the name of state security or the ruling party’s ideology. Nevertheless, such constitutional provisions sometimes offer citizens some possibilities for organizing opposition to their regimes and to effect change (see, for example, the Country Studies of Chile, Poland, and South Africa, among others). Paine

The Rule of Law, Not Men 

Constitutional limits are based on the idea that the power of the law — rules adopted by the people's representatives — is superior to the power of any individual or group. In his influential pamphlet Common Sense, the U.S. revolutionary Thomas Paine noted that in absolute monarchies, the king is the law, while in free, self-governing communities, “the law is king.” The separation of powers established by means of a constitution adopted by the consent of the governed (see Section 1), ensures that no individual is able to dominate the government and create his or her own law. The constitution and the laws that grow out of it are a framework that cannot be broken and theoretically apply to all citizens.

Of course, in a number of instances in U.S. history (and that of other electoral democracies), the supremacy of law has been invoked for wrongful or immoral purposes. Certainly, the provisions protecting slavery in the U.S. Constitution (and legislative acts enforcing it or further extending its reach) directly contradicted the Declaration of Independence and what most Americans today believe is country’s foundational principle that all persons are created equal. The decisions in Dred Scott (1857) and Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), in which the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the practices of slavery and racial segregation, respectively, are notorious examples of the rule of law gone terribly wrong even when practiced under a constitutional separation of powers. Ultimately it is the people who must overcome such contradictions through legislative action, electoral change, public protests, or, as a last resort, revolution. In the case of abolishing slavery in the U.S., a civil war, had to be fought and won.

All democracies have examples of individuals who challenged existing law to achieve a higher moral purpose. Still, the basic precept that John Adams explicitly built into the Massachusetts constitution — to establish "a government of laws and not of men" — holds an essential place in the framework of democracy. It is the basis for the preservation of self-governance against the arrogation of power by a dictatorial leader or the interests of the few.

Free, Fair, & Regular Elections: Study Questions

Suggested Study Questions and Activities

Teachers:  The following are questions and activities that can be given to your students after they read the materials in each section. The questions are meant to be asked as a review exercise, although some encourage critical thinking as well. The activities can be presented as classroom exercises or as individual homework assignments. Unlike the questions, they tend to require additional research. Some call for students to create mock trials or debates that would engage the entire class. Both the questions and the activities are formatted so that they might be used directly by students, although you may rewrite them as you feel necessary. 

Essential Principles


When representative democracy was first instituted, the vote was limited to property-owning males. The vote was generally denied to citizens without property, women, indentured servants, slaves, and other subordinate classes. Under such conditions, was the political system a legitimate or genuine democracy? Why or why not? Can similar or any other justifications for restricting the franchise be used today?

Can citizens freely vote for dictatorship? What are some cases in which citizens freely choose parties or candidates that are violent or dictatorial? Can these choices be justified? Did the countries remain democratic (or have subsequent free elections)?


Aside from the three countries listed in this Essential Principle study guide (Poland, Venezuela, Azerbaijan), identify some other examples of Free, Partly Free, and Not Free countries (see other Country Studies or Freedom House's list of countries in its Freedom in the World survey). What are the criteria used for designation within each category? Are there examples of Free countries with unfree elections or Not Free countries with partly or fully free elections? Examine a Freedom House report of a country you have chosen. Would you have a different designation from Freedom House? Justify your assessment with concrete events from the recent past using the New York Times World Topics and Economist magazine country sections. What conclusions can you draw about elections in general? 



Compare pre- and post-1989 Poland as described in the Country Study. What makes the most recent elections free? What made previous, communist-era elections unfree? In 1989, the Solidarity movement accepted a Roundtable Agreement in which it agreed to participate in only partially free elections. Why did Solidarity leaders agree to such elections? What was the expected outcome and what was the final outcome? 


From 1982 to 1989, the government banned the Solidarity trade union and repressed opposition activity. What was the response of Polish citizens to the re-imposition of communist dictatorship? What strategies were developed to oppose the dictatorship? Were they peaceful or violent? Research using the New York Times and Economist web sites and other sources for articles during this period. Compare Poland from 1982-89 to Azerbaijan since 1993 to today. What are the similarities and differences? 

Arrange viewings of Man of Marble and Man of Iron. How do these movies depict life under the communist dictatorship? What were conditions for workers? Why did workers rebel in 1980? 

The Catholic Church played an important role in Poland's history, both in times of occupation and during independence. Do additional research using the Resources to compare the role of the Church during the period of martial law and its role today. What role has the Church played, historically and more recently, in elections and politics? 



What factors originally helped Venezuela to become a democracy? What types of social and political movements supported democracy? What factors contributed to the election of Hugo Chavez in 1998 and to the repudiation of his Bolivarian Revolution in the December 2015 National Assembly elections 2015? Why did Venezuelans turn against the democratic agreement of 1958 (the Punta Fijo Pact) in 1998 and then against Chavez’s United Socialist Party in 2015?

What factors led to the election of and consolidation of power by Hugo Chavez? Is Chavez a dictator? Pretend you are a lawyer defending Chavez's behavior and make the argument that he should not be considered a dictator. Allow a classmate to present the opposing side, and have the class vote based on your presentations.


Have students examine why Freedom House identifies Venezuela as “partly free” even as the country’s political system became more dictatorial under Presidents Hugo Chavez and Nicolas Madura. Why does Freedom House identify Venezuela as “partly free” as opposed to “not free”?

Divide students in debate format to answer the question: Chavez’s period of rule as president was a dictatorship: Yes/No. Consider the issue of whether Venezuela is a dictatorship under his successor, Nicolas Maduro? Use Resource links and articles from the New York Times and Economist. Have one student from each side present the group’s case.



After a brief period of democracy, Azerbaijan has been governed by a post-Communist dictatorship. What other post–Soviet bloc countries are dictatorships? Which countries are now more democratic? See Country Studies of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan? What are similarities and differences among these “not free” countries? 


See articles on previous elections in the Resource Section on Azerbaijan. See, e.g., the IDEE report on 2003 elections and The New York Times and Economist articles on the 2013 elections. Describe the different methods used by the Azerbaijan government to prevent free and fair elections and to influence international observer missions. What do these methods show are necessary for free and fair elections to be legitimate? What are ways in which the Azerbaijan government has tried to influence international observers to rate their elections as free and fair?

Since the 2013 presidential elections in Azerbaijan, the regime is increasingly autocratic and repressive. What strategy would you adopt to overcome such a persistent dictatorship? Look at cases of countries that recently overcame dictatorship (e.g. Poland in 1989 or more recent examples of Tunisia and Ukraine). What strategies were used in these cases?

See the Sports for Rights report in Resource Section. Using it as a guide, write a proposal making suggestions to U.S. policymakers about how to support democratic change in Azerbaijan. Choose different external and internal pressures to force change.

The practice of election fraud seems to have been extended even to the Eurovision Song Contest. See the International Herald Tribune article of May 22, 2013 article listed in the Resources Section. What do the allegations indicate as to the culture of corruption in Azerbaijan? See other articles in the Resource section on this topic. Is there a connection between the lack of free elections and the level of corruption in Azerbaijan? Explain.

Free, Fair, & Regular Elections: Country Studies — Azerbaijan

Azerbaijan Country Study

Rankings in Freedom in the World 2016. Status: Not Free. Freedom Rating: 6; Political Rights: 6; Civil Liberties: 6



Azerbaijan lies at the crossroads between Europe and Asia, located on the coast of the Caspian Sea with Russia and Iran to the north and south, and Georgia and Armenia to the northwest and west. Situated as such, Azerbaijan’s history has been influenced from all directions by Arabia, the Caucasus, Central Asia, Iran, the Ottoman Empire, and Russia. Before being forcibly incorporated into the Soviet Union in 1921, Azerbaijan had established the first democratic republic in the Muslim world, which existed from 1918 to 1920.

The country regained independence in August 1991 as the Soviet Union was collapsing. Until then, Azerbaijan's population was diverse, with large Armenian and Russian populations. A conflict over the Nagorno-Karabakh region between Armenians and Azeris resulted in mass migration of Azeris and Armenians across borders. Azerbaijan lost one-fifth of its territory after Nagorno-Karabakh declared itself independent and Armenian forces, backed by Russia, seized surrounding territory for a land corridor. Active hostilities have ceased (although with some flare-ups), but the international status of Nagorno-Karabakh remains unresolved.

Azerbaijan enjoyed just over one year of democratic rule following independence. In 1993, the former secret police chief and first secretary of the Communist Party of Azerbaijan, Haidar Aliyev, seized power after a military insurrection backed by Russia. Since then, the country has been under dictatorial rule by the Aliyev family (Haidar was succeeded as president by his son in 2003). Formal elections have been regular, but none have been free or fair. Police repression, intimidation, and control over the electoral process and the state-run media have ensured that the Aliyevs and their allies maintain political control.

Azerbaijan is a small country in area (112th in the world in size at 86,600 square kilometers) as well as in population (9.7 million people, ranked 91st). The country's large oil and gas reserves, however, have placed the country in the upper half of the world’s economy. In 2012, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) ranked Azerbaijan 69th in the world in total GDP in nominal measurement (approximately $74 billion in total output). Due to increased oil production over the last decade, the country’s per capita gross national income, ranked in nominal terms, improved to 78th (approximately $6,800 per annum). Disparity of income, however, is quite high, especially comparing urban and rural populations.

Before being forcibly incorporated into the Soviet Union in 1921, Azerbaijan established the first democratic republic in the Muslim world, which existed from 1918 to 1920.


From the First Kingdom to the 20th Century 

The first state on Azerbaijani territory was the Kingdom of Mannae, which ruled from the 10th to the 8th centuries BC. Thereafter, Azerbaijan became the subject of repeated invasion, occupation, and foreign influence. The Persian leader Cyrus the Great conquered the territory in the sixth century BC, followed by Alexander the Great in the mid-4th century BC. After the Seleucid dynasty, an independent kingdom survived two centuries before parts were conquered in turn by the Armenians, the Romans (in the first century BC), and the Persian Sassanid Empire (in the fourth century AD). 

Azerbaijan was seized in the Arab conquests in the 7th century AD and most Azeris converted to Islam. In the mid-11th century, the Oghuz Turks expanded the Seljuk Empire from Central Asia to Anatolia and took over much of Azerbaijan. It introduced the current language, customs, and Turkic identification of the Azeri population. Like much of Asia in the 13th and 14th centuries, Azerbaijan fell to the Mongol army and thereafter came under the rule of the Safavid dynasty in Persia. In 1501, it adopted Shi’a Islam as its ruling theology and converted Azeris and others under its influence (most of the Turkic world remained Sunni). Beginning in the early 18th century, Russia and a revived Persia vied for Azeri territory and it was formally divided in treaties signed in 1813 and 1828. Northern Azerbaijan, corresponding to the country’s current boundaries, was under Russian influence. It began exploitation of oil beginning in the 1870s, which led to a period of economic modernization. Baku, the capital, of Azerbaijan, became an important economic center before World War I, renowned for its cosmopolitan and diverse society, including a large Jewish minority. Southern Azerbaijan remained under Persian control and was incorporated into current-day Iran, where two thirds of Azeri-speaking people live. 

The First Democratic Republic in the Muslim World 

The overthrow of the Russian tsar in 1917 and the end of World War I in 1918 gave Azeris the opportunity to establish their long-held aspiration of national independence. The Azerbaijan Democratic Republic was established in 1918 under the leadership of Mammad Amin Rasulzade, who had created the Musavat Party in 1911 on a platform of Western liberal values. From 1918-20, Azerbaijan was the first and at that time the only democracy in the Muslim world. A liberal constitution was adopted instituting a parliamentary system of government and protections for basic freedoms. The constitution also adopted universal suffrage, extending the right to vote to women before many states in Europe. 

The Long Soviet Nightmare 

The Azerbaijan Democratic Republic lasted for only two years. Buffeted by the turmoil of the Russian Civil War, the government collapsed and the Bolshevik Red Army seized control of the republic in April 1920. In 1922, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia were joined together as the Transcaucasian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic and incorporated within the Soviet Union. In 1936, the three countries were made separate Soviet Socialist Republics. The 70-year period of Soviet rule was severe. Musavat’s leaders and activists, and many thousands of ordinary citizens, were imprisoned and often perished in prison and labor camps. Tens of thousands more were deported to Central Asia and Siberia, where they often did not survive the harsh conditions. All property was seized and collectivized. Every aspect of life came under the control of the Communist Party and the KGB secret police. So-called “elections” were held routinely, but only to force citizens to vote for the Communist Party, which held supreme power under the Soviet Constitution. Musavat leader Mammad Amin Rasulzade was initially imprisoned but later escaped to Turkey. There and elsewhere in Europe he led international anti-Soviet and anti-Fascist political movements in exile. Back in Turkey, he reformed Musavat with other ex-patriots in exile, where it continued to organize opposition to Soviet rule. 

The Collapse of the Soviet Union and the Restoration of Independence 

By 1988, the Soviet Union was fraying. Communist General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev had adopted the reform policies of glasnost and perestroika to try to stem the USSR’s economic and political collapse. Taking advantage of the openings these policies allowed, Azeris and other nationalities throughout the Soviet Union formed national popular front movements to push for greater autonomy and then independence. The leaders of the Azerbaijan Popular Front, who had been active in the dissident movement, based the Popular Front platform on the original Musavat Party and its liberal heritage. 

At the same time, the national movement in Armenia had sparked a separatist movement in Nagorno-Karabakh, an autonomous republic within the Azerbaijan SSR but with a majority Armenian population that sought union with Armenia. Until 1988, Azerbaijan had a diverse population with large Armenian and Russian communities as well as other Caucasian ethnic minorities. Attacks by both Azeris and Armenians against members of the other group resulted in the migration of Armenian and Azeri communities across borders. The Soviet Union used the pretext of ethnic conflict to crack down on large national protests for independence held in Baku and impose martial law in January 1990. 

Under Soviet elections held in 1990, Azerbaijan's Supreme Soviet was still dominated by Communists, but some opposition members had gained seats and succeeded in gaining a declaration of autonomy. In August 1991, Ayaz Mutalibov, the Azerbaijan Communist Party general secretary, was one of two republic leaders to back the August 1991 coup attempt in Moscow aimed at preserving the Soviet Union. But he quickly reversed course when it failed in the face of mounting demonstrations organized by the Azerbaijan Popular Front movement. To preserve his own power, Mutalibov dissolved the Azerbaijan Communist Party and immediately held a single-candidate presidential election in September. As the Azerbaijan Popular Front’s public support grew, the Azerbaijan Supreme Soviet now issued a declaration of Independence on October 18. The decision was overwhelmingly ratified by public referendum in December 1991. By default, Mutalibov became the first president of independent Azerbaijan.

In December 1991, the Nagorno-Karabakh National Council also declared independence, initiating a full-scale war between Armenian and Azeri forces in which the Russian Federation sided with Armenia. The conflict, which ultimately cost thousands of lives and displaced tens of thousands more, would have a profound impact on the future politics of Azerbaijan.


Azerbaijan, having little history of sovereignty and dominated for most of its history by foreign powers, established the first democratic republic in the Muslim world in 1918 and held elections with universal suffrage. But the democratic republic survived only two years before the Bolshevik Red Army imposed Soviet communist rule, under which false single-party elections were held for 70 years. The Azerbaijan Popular Front (APF), inspired by the memory of first Democratic Republic, successfully pressed the Soviet parliament to declare independence in October 1991, which was approved overwhelmingly in a popular referendum in December. Unfortunately, Azerbaijan enjoyed only a brief second period of liberal democracy before being taken over by a dictatorship similar to those in other post-Soviet republics. 

Azerbaijan's Second Brief Period of Liberalism 

The new independent state declared in October 1991 remained ruled by an undemocratically elected president, the former communist leader Ayaz  Mutalibov, and a ruling national council he appointed. The Popular Front movement succeeded in pressing the national council to call a new presidential election for June 7, 1992. Abulfaz Elchibey, a former Soviet dissident and the founder and chairman of the Popular Front, won Azerbaijan’s first free presidential election with 61 percent of the vote against four candidates. No parliamentary elections were held but a new national parliament, or Mejlis, was formed based on existing members of the Supreme Soviet, including a majority of Popular Front and other opposition members.

Elchibey and the Popular Front had adopted the liberal ideology of Azerbaijan's earlier independence leader, Mammad Amin Rasulzade. As in the Democratic Republic of Azerbaijan, the Mejlis adopted legislation guaranteeing freedom of expression, assembly, and association and liberalizing the economy. In this free environment, an independent media emerged and other new parties, unions, and public associations were formed. The new speaker of the parliament, Isa Gambar, led the re-establishment of the Musavat Party and was elected Musavat’s first chairman. In foreign policy, Elchibey negotiated the withdrawal of Russian military forces in Azerbaijan, the first post-Soviet republic to do so.

Ilham Aliyev

 The Return to Dictatorship

As in 1918-20, however, Azerbaijan’s second democratic moment was brief. President Elchibey was unable to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict or stem losses against Armenian forces (one-fifth of Azerbaijani territory was seized for a land-corridor to the separatist republic). Just one year after his election, in June 1993, he faced a military insurrection, led by a former Soviet commander and backed by Russia. To forestall bloodshed, Elchibey fled to his home region of Nakhichevan. In this situation, Haidar Aliyev, who had headed Azerbaijan’s KGB and also served as a member of the Soviet Politburo, took power as interim leader and quickly held an election for president in October 1993. Aliyev had only token opposition and he claimed a Soviet era-style 98 percent of the vote. He then took full control of the parliament, broadcast media, and security services, which he used to repress opposition parties, independent newspapers, and trade unions.

Parliamentary elections were held in November 1995 together with a referendum on a new constitution institutionalizing authoritarian presidential power. Opposition parties competed in a completely unfair setting: the government's Central Election Commission (CEC) disallowed 63 percent of the candidates who petitioned to run; Musavat leaders were arrested or barred from traveling outside the capital; and election activities and rallies were disrupted by police. With the CEC controlling voting procedures and counting, Aliyev's New Azerbaijan Party “won” a large majority of the legislative seats and the referendum passed with a reported 91 percent of the population in favor. The 1998 presidential election was boycotted by Musavat and other political parties to protest the adoption of an undemocratic electoral law that provided no safeguards for a free and fair ballot. In a small field, Aliyev was declared the winner with 75 percent of the vote. While international monitors determined that the election process was unfair and that elections did not meet international norms, Western governments recognized Aliyev’s “re-election.”

An Opposition Challenge to the Regime

Although conditions remained unfair, opposition parties decided to compete in the November 2000 parliamentary elections. Despite active government repression, an opposition coalition led by the Musavat Party carried out a vigorous campaign. Mass rallies indicated widespread support for the opposition, but again control over the electoral process determined the result: the New Azerbaijan Party was declared the winner, with only a few opposition members allowed seats. International monitors observed numerous irregularities, including ballot box stuffing, ballot manipulation, a flawed counting process, and restrictions on domestic observers. An independent alternative count indicated that the democratic coalition had in fact won a majority of votes cast.

In all of Azerbaijan's elections since independence from the Soviet Union, government control over electoral laws and procedures, the state media, and, not least, the police denied any possibility of fair elections.

Elections “Must Be Described by a Different Term”

In August 2003, after another rigged referendum amended the constitution to allow Haidar Aliyev to more easily arrange a successor, he appointed his son, Ilham, as prime minister. He then resigned as president in favor of Ilham, who replaced his father on the ballot for the presidential election to be held in October. The main opposition candidate was Isa Gambar, running as the single candidate of an opposition coalition led by the Musavat party. Again, government control over broadcast media and police repression at every turn placed enormous obstacles to organizing election activities. Nevertheless, the opposition coalition succeeded in carrying out an effective campaign that culminated in huge electoral rallies attended by hundreds of thousands of supporters. On election day, October 15, the CEC quickly declared Ilham Aliyev the official victor with a supposed 77 percent. Gambar was said to receive just 14 percent. Tens of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets of Baku to protest the clearly fabricated results and the stealing of the election but these were put down with brutal force. Following the protests, more than 700 opposition activists were arrested and many were sentenced to harsh prison terms. Observers from the Institute for Democracy in Eastern Europe concluded that "if the word 'elections' is to retain its meaning, the events of October 15 in Azerbaijan must be described by a different term."

The Further Consolidation of Dictatorship

Parliamentary elections in both November 2005 and 2010 were even more rigged than previous ones. The democratic opposition was both battered by repression and fractured as a result of infiltration and police manipulation and could not mount as serious a challenge as in 2000 or 2003. There were no longer even any token opposition members of parliament. In 2008, Ilham Aliyev handily “won” presidential elections  against marginal candidates, supposedly with 87.5 percent of the vote. He then pushed through a referendum removing the two-term limit for the presidency and thus the last remaining constitutional limitation on his rule. He ran for another five-year term in an election held in October 2013. According to official returns, Aliyev won 84.5 percent of the vote. A united opposition candidate, Jamil Hasanli, a well-known filmmaker, got just 5.5 percent. It was later discovered that the Central Electoral Commission had input the figure of 72.5 percent for Aliyev in a smartphone “app” days prior to the election, but apparently not even this margin of victory was sufficient to satisfy the incumbent. International observers from the OSCE documented “widespread irregularities, including ballot-box stuffing and . . . fraudulent counting.” It also stated that the election “was undermined by limitations on the freedoms of expression, assembly and association . . . voter intimidation and a restrictive media environment.”

Current Issues

In all of Azerbaijan's elections since the 1993 coup, government control over electoral procedures, the state media, and, not least, the police denied any possibility of free or fair elections. Today, Azerbaijan is under the full political and economic control of President Ilham Aliyev and the Aliyev “clan,” made up of family members and his closest backers in the security forces and state oil sector.  While his father, the ex-Soviet communist party and KGB chief Haidar Aliyev, put in place the basic features of Azerbaijan’s dictatorship after his 1993 coup, Ilham Aliyev has successfully institutionalized and extended its repressive features. Civic groups and political parties continue to oppose the government and press for democratic change and human rights, however their members are increasingly put in jail, harassed, or forced into exile. The space for open criticism and activity has been greatly narrowed.

Starting in 2009 with the passage of a law on NGOs that placed restrictions on receiving foreign money, the government has steadily increased repression on civic associations, independent trade unions, and political parties. Even as Azerbaijan assumed the position of the rotating Council of Europe presidency in 2014, the regime heightened the campaign of repression by putting in jail many of the country’s most well-known civic and human rights defenders: these included the director of the Institute for Peace and Democracy, Leyla Yunus and her husband, Arif Yunus; the human rights lawyer Rasul Jafarov; and the head of the Institute for Reporters Freedom and Safety, Emil Huseynov. There is effectively no independent media. Only small newspapers are allowed and even then, many journalists from independent news outlets are imprisoned, including internet bloggers. As described by a BBC report (see Resources), “Over the last two years dozens of journalists, opposition activists and bloggers have been arrested in Azerbaijan, accused of possessing drugs or weapons . . . [o]r charged with hooliganism.” While Leyla and Arif Yunus were released from prison in late 2015 after two years of hard-regime imprisonment, they were in weak physical condition due to poor medical treatment for severe heart illnesses. Meanwhile, a journalist for Radio Free Europe, Khadija Ismailova, was sentenced to 7½ years’ imprisonment in September 2015 for her articles reporting on the vast wealth and corruption of the Aliyev family and his government supporters. Many other journalists and political activists remain in prison. There is little criticism of Azerbaijan by European institutions or the U.S. government for such human rights violations. One reason is Azerbaijan’s successful “caviar diplomacy” — the government’s effort to solicit support among Western politicians through expensive trips and other forms of bribes (see, for example, the article in the Guardian in Resources). 

The regime’s hold over oil resources and its use of revenues for construction of large “modern” buildings in Baku is constant. The cost, however, has been large: many of the capital’s old neighborhoods and much of the city’s fin-de-siecle architecture has been destroyed. And, in fact, economic conditions for most in the country, including Baku’s citizens, are desperate, sparking ongoing protests. In January 2016, a series of protests organized in the regions against shortages in basic goods were attacked by police and forcibly dispersed. Due to social media postings of the demonstrations and the police attacks, the head of the presidential administration announced new limits on the internet.

Elections continue to be regular, unfair, and unfree, serving merely to provide the appearance of legitimacy for the dictatorship of Ilham Aliyev and to institutionalize its rule. The November 1 2015 parliamentary elections saw little competition and YAP continued to take a decisive majority of seats, while so-called independents tied to the government won most of the other seats. The OSCE’s Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights did not even observe the elections due to restrictions placed by the Azerbaijan government, which had earlier closed the OSCE’s office in Baku. As Arif Hajili, the new chairman of Musavat, stated, “The situation is worse than after the Soviet elections of 1990. Today, there are not even any opposition members.” A number of leaders and activists of Musavat remain in jail as political prisoners charged falsely with trumped up charges. But there is also a cumulative effect of repression: hundreds of Musavat activists imprisoned since 1995 are generally unemployed, unable to find work. “They have given up everything to defend democracy,” Hajili states.