Peru's never-ending quest for the perfect Constitution

Congress is debating a major constitutional overhaul, its third in 23 years.

Facing stubbornly high unemployment, a backlash against free-market reforms, and an embarrassing string of corruption scandals, the Peruvian government is opting for a drastic yet familiar fix: reforming the country's Constitution.

Two weeks ago, Congress began formal deliberations on Peru's third major constitutional overhaul since 1979. The result could be the 13th different Constitution in the Andean nation's 181-year history, on average one every 14 years. The head of the constitutional commission, Rep. Henry Pease, said that change is needed "in order to give the country a text that will help us move forward."

Finding that perfect text is an ongoing quest in Latin America. While the United States has had virtually the same governing blueprint for over 225 years, its neighbors to the south often throw out the existing document with the departing government. While this practice may strengthen individual political leaders in the short term, observers say, over time it tends to undermine the public's faith in democracy.

"Constitutions in Latin America tend to be identified with the government – or the individual – in power at a particular point in time," says Kurt Weyland, associate professor of government at the University of Texas in Austin and an expert in Latin American politics. "As soon as a regime falls, the next government insists on constitutional change. This sends a signal that institutions and rules are subject to political manipulation, and that is bad news for democracy."

Peru's recent history of constitutional reform reflects the country's complicated relationship with democracy. In 1979, following 12 years of military rule, a new Constitution was fashioned for Peru's return to democratic governance. It established a "social democratic state" and emphasized a significant role for the government in the economy. That document, however, was replaced in 1993, when President Alberto Fujimori pushed through a more market-oriented Constitution. More significantly, it allowed Mr. Fujimori to run for a second consecutive term, which has traditionally been prohibited.

Following revelations of systemic corruption in his government, Fujimori fled Peru in 2000. As a result, the Constitution of 1993 became discredited in the eyes of many Peruvians.

In May 2001, interim President Valentín Paniagua formed a blue-ribbon panel to make recommendations on constitutional change. Now, says José Luis Sardón, law professor at the Peruvian University of Applied Sciences in Lima and author of a constitutional history of Peru, the reformers in Congress are focused on "annihilating all vestiges of the Fujimori regime, including the Constitution."

Some of the issues in the current debate include expanding labor rights, strengthening public education, introducing midterm congressional elections, and prohibiting consecutive presidential terms.

To most people involved with the reform, however, the specific changes being considered are less important than breaking with the past. "A democratic country," says Luis Guerrero, a member of the constitutional commission, "cannot be guided by a Constitution that has as its father a dictatorial and corrupt government."

Peru is not the only country in the region contemplating constitutional changes. Bolivia is debating reforms that would grant indigenous groups and civil society fuller political participation. Last month, President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela broached the possibility of yet another constitutional makeover, less than four years after major legal reforms that he himself initiated. And in Chile, 4 of 5 citizens favor a plebiscite aimed at changing the 1980 Constitution, adopted during the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet.

Critics charge that such changes are often more style than substance. "It is much easier to give grand speeches about constitutional reform," says Mr. Weyland, "than it is to address the real social and economic challenges the region faces."

Coming to consensus on the language for Peru's new Constitution may not be easy. The 120-member Congress includes representatives from 11 different political groups. Congress needs a two-thirds majority to approve constitutional reform on its own or else the initiative would face a national referendum.

Mr. Sardón worries that another round of constitutional reengineering in Peru will produce "terrible erosion" in the very concept of a Constitution, but he agrees that some sort of large-scale reforms may be necessary.

"In Peru and in all of Latin America," he says, "we are discovering that economic crises are not just about economic policies, but also about our laws and the way we organize the state."

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