Brazilians look to new constitution to limit leader's traditional power. Main author of plan warns against looking to a document, rather than people, for change
Rio de Janeiro — As Brazilian legislators grapple with the monumental task of writing a new constitution, many are turning to a single document and a single man for guidance. The document, a draft constitution that President Jos'e Sarney has refused to endorse, calls on Congress to adopt a parliamentary system of government, abolishing many of the powers of Brazil's strong presidency.
The man, Afonso Arinos, is the draft's principal author. He presided over a government commission of 48 leading jurists, politicians, industrialists, and intellectuals which wrote the document, now known as the Arinos constitution.
Congressional leaders say the draft is exerting a profound influence on legislators and offers the first glimpse of Brazil's next constitution. Even in cases where lawmakers seem firmly opposed to the draft, it provides the focus around which debate revolves.
In a striking example of this influence, Congress's subcommittee on executive power officially proposed May 11 that Brazil switch to parliamentary government by creating the office of prime minister to share leadership with the President.
Politicians say the proposal has the backing of the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party, which controls Congress. Hence, the new form of government appears increasingly likely to be part of the proposed constitution, scheduled to be completed by year's end.
Another recommendation of the draft calls on the government to increase control over the economy, while restricting the activity of foreign companies. In addition, it would make Congress more representative by instituting district voting in place of statewide elections. It would also decentralize the nation's courts and taxation system.
But the draft goes beyond broad guidelines and confronts many issues in detail. It reduces the work week from six to five days, reserves half of the places in public schools for the poor, and provides retirement benefits to housewives.
Critics say draft is `unrealistic'
Critics of the draft oppose many of its proposed solutions for Brazil's economic and social problems. They also dismiss it as unrealistic and too long.
``By trying to specify all imaginable problems and solutions, the Arinos Commission created a document that is impractical and Utopian,'' wrote one political commentator. ``But it is likely that portions of the draft will end up in the new constitution.''
For Brazil, which has gone through six constitutions since its independence in 1822, and four since 1934, producing a lasting document will not be easy. Legislators will be forced to balance their hopes for the nation's future against the more immediate problems of a $113 billion foreign debt, mounting inflation and labor unrest, and relentless poverty.
Senator Arinos says the key is to break with Brazil's tradition of granting unlimited power to the head-of-state, who inevitably abuses it. An 81-year-old law professor and former foreign minister, Mr. Arinos served on Brazil's last constitutional assembly in 1946. His father helped write the 1934 Constitution, and his grandfather, the 1891 Constitution.
Arinos was elected to Congress again in November, two months after completing the draft constitution. This spring, he was chosen to head the congressional committee that will determine the new constitution's final form.
Doing away with unlimited power
``Brazil seems on the verge of adopting the type of dualistic parliamentary system my commission recommended,'' Arinos said in an April interview. ``We intend to do away with this lamentable Latin American tradition of unlimited presidential power.'' Only one democratically elected civilian president has ever served a full term in Brazil; the rest have either resigned or been ousted by the military.
Arinos argues that a parliamentary system would make the government more stable and representative by increasing the role of legislators and political parties. But critics say that Brazil lacks the strong parties, skilled bureaucracy, and historical tradition necessary for parliamentary rule to succeed.
``There would be no sense in mobilizing millions of voters in order to choose a prime minister who would merely be an ornamental figure,'' the leader of the right of center Liberal Front Party said.
Despite his disagreement, almost all members of Congress agree limits must be placed on the presidency, a sentiment reinforced by the failure of an anti-inflation program Mr. Sarney imposed last year without congressional approval. The new constitution will be the first drafted by a democratically elected body in more than 40 years in Brazil, and it will replace the document imposed in 1967 by the military dictatorship that ruled the country for 21 years, ending in 1985.
Congress on the constitution
Congress is expected to follow the Arinos constitution in eliminating the presidential decree, which Sarney has used to impose reforms without legislative or judicial review. If legislators balk at the further step of parliamentary rule, they will likely reduce executive powers by trimming one or two years off the current six-year presidential term.
Sarney said in May that he was willing to cut his term in office from six to five years and indicated support for establishing five-year terms for future presidents.
Congress is leaning away from the leftist drift of the Arinos constitution's economic proposals. In recent polls, most legislators surveyed said they oppose increasing the state's role in the economy.
Concerning the question of controlling the military, many lawmakers have taken a stand on an issue where Arinos was reticent. They want to strip the military of its constitutional right to intervene domestically, even in national emergencies.
Here, it is Arinos who accuses his opponents of idealism. ``In Latin America, you can't end a tradition of military intervention simply by writing a provision into the constitution. You can spell out the cases in which the military is allowed to act and that is all.''
Whatever form the next constitution takes, the process of writing it is certain to cause controversy. Arinos is concerned Brazilians expect more from the document than it can possibly provide. ``A constitution by itself cannot bring miraculous change. Change doesn't come from a document: it comes from the people.''