Interpellation vs motion of censure

If you speak French and you are interested in Africa, particularly African constitutions, then you should bookmark the blog by Stéphane Bolle. It provides a fantastic resource for the latest constitutional news in Francophone sub-Saharan Africa, as well as copies of academic papers and opinion pieces.

Recently, he posted on the situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Here, on 11 March the opposition interpellated the prime minister, Antoine Gizenga. In the end, for procedural (and political) reasons, the debate on the interpellation did not take place. However, as Professor Bolle notes in his blog, this is an interesting sign of parliament flexing its muscles in a system that knew only dictatorship and executive dominance for many years. This development suggests that the 2006 constitution may have the potential to meet its democratic and pluralist aspirations.

More generally, this situation reminded me of an e-mail discussion I was having not too long ago where the issue of interpellation was raised in the context of the definition of semi-presidentialism. In this blog, a necessary condition of semi-presidentialism is that the prime minister and cabinet should be responsible to the legislature. If a constitution makes no provision for motions of censure but does specify the opportunity for the interpellation of the government, is this sufficient to meet the requirement of collective responsibility to the legislature?

My reply to this question is: no. I am not a constitutional lawyer, but, all things equal, I see a difference between interpellation and a motion of censure. An interpellation is a way of forcing the government to the chamber to account for its actions. A motion of censure is the same except for the fact that necessarily it can result in the opportunity for a vote on the government’s existence. There may be cases where interpellations can also result in a vote to oust the government, but, for me, this needs to be specified in the constitution in order for a country to be classed as semi-presidential.

We can see this logic in a number of constitutions. For example, Article 128 of the 2003 Constitution of Rwanda includes interpellation in a list of ways in which the Chamber of Deputies can inform and control the government. The other means are oral and written questions, commissions of inquiry and hearings in parliamentary committees. Article 130 then goes on to specify the procedures for motions of censure against the government. The assumption is that interpellations belong to a class of actions that cannot result in a vote to bring down the government.

One of the difficulties with interpellations is that whether or not an interpellation can be followed by a vote to bring down the government is sometimes only explicitly specified in the regulations of the legislature. For example, the parliamentary rules for Algeria clearly distinguish between motions of censure, which can bring down the government, and interpellations, which cannot. However, parliamentary rules can often be very difficult to find.

Given that for the purposes of this blog the identification of semi-presidential countries is based on constitutions only, then I do not try to make any classification judgments on the basis of parliamentary rules. In this case, I only classify a country as semi-presidential if a constitutional mention of interpellation is combined with an explicit clause that such an interpellation can result in a vote against the government.

The 1992 Constitution of Djibouti is a case where there is no provision for a motion of censure but where the National Assembly does have right to interpellate the government (Article 61). So, I do not class Djibouti as semi-presidential. For the record, the 1993 parliamentary rules for Djibouti make no mention of interpellation being able to lead to a vote that can bring down the government.

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