Burkina Faso – Interesting constitutional innovations

It’s here – Burkina Faso’s new draft constitution. The constitutional review commission presented the results of its deliberations on January 10th. The 92-member commission — with representation from the ruling MPP-party, opposition parties (including the CDP of former President Blaise Compaoré) and civil society (including labor unions and traditional authorities) — was officially seated on September 29, 2016 by President Roch Marc Christian Kaboré. The commission is charged with proposing a new constitution that will institute the country’s Fourth Republic.

So what is in this proposed new constitutional text? What are its key provisions in terms of presidential power, executive-legislative relations and term limits?

First of all, the intent is to keep a semi-presidential regime, with a directly elected president and a prime minister accountable to the legislature. The president must appoint a prime minister “from within the legislative majority,” after consulting with that majority (Article 66). Those provisions are the same as in the current constitution from 1991, last amended in November 2015 by the National Transition Council.

Interestingly, Article 56 of the new draft constitution specifies that in the event that the prime minister is backed by a legislative majority which does not support the president, “both have to determine by consensus major policy orientations in the greater interest of the Nation.” Article 56 continues: “In the absence of consensus, it is the Government [i.e. the prime minister and cabinet] that determines and conducts the policy of the Nation.” This is an innovation compared to the current constitution.

In other words, in the event of a conflictual cohabitation between a president and a prime minister from opposing parties, executive power would swing to the prime minister. On the other hand, the president would retain the power to dismiss the prime minister “in the higher interest of the Nation” (Article 66), as is also currently the case. As in the present constitution, a new prime minister and cabinet would require legislative approval within 30 days of being appointed (Article 87), through a vote on the government’s policy statement.

The president’s power of initiative to dismiss the prime minister would keep Burkina Faso in the camp of president-parliamentary regimes, per Shugart and Carey’s (1992) definition. The president may also dissolve the legislature and call for new elections (Article 70), but cannot do so again till 12 months have passed since the last dissolution (same as today’s constitution). Conversely, it would only take 25 percent of legislators to initiate a censure vote against the government (Article 115), as opposed to 30 percent in the current constitution.

The president would keep his reserved policy domain, in the area of defense policy. The head of state is the commander in chief and appoints the Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces. The president is thus responsible for determining the strategic orientations of the national defense policy and for chairing the National Defense Council (Article 72). This would be a significant power to retain, in the event of cohabitation.

The proposed constitution maintains presidential term limits at two 5-year terms. It was the attempted removal of this term-limit provision which brought about a popular uprising that led to the fall of former President Compaoré in October 2014. An absolute majority of votes is required to win the election, with a run-off if no candidate is able to secure such a majority in the first round (Article 57). An important innovation is the “locking” (‘verrouillage’) of presidential term limits by including them among those intrinsic democratic elements of the constitution (listed in Article 192) that cannot be changed (along with the republican and lay nature of the state, multipartism, and the integrity of the national territory). Another interesting novelty is the introduction of term limits also for legislators (a maximum of three 5-year terms, Article 101). Furthermore, a deputy may serve a maximum of two terms as president of the national assembly (Article 107).

Finally, changing the constitution without recourse to a referendum would become more challenging: it would require a 4/5 legislative majority of members of parliament (Article 190) to pass changes without the need for a popular vote, compared to 3/4 of the members of the legislature as is currently the case.

Next steps: the draft constitution will be discussed in popular forums to be held in all 13 regions of the country and also shared with the diaspora in countries with a significant concentration of Burkinabe immigrants.  The text will thereafter be given to the president for comment and then finalized by the commission before submission to a popular referendum. It will be interesting to see if the proposed innovations – notably with regards to the division of executive powers in the event of disagreements between president and prime minister from opposing parties – will survive in the final version.

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