ALBERTO FUJIMORI had wanted to celebrate big on Wednesday - Peru's Independence Day, his birthday, and the third anniversary of his taking office - by promulgating a new Constitution, one that would allow him to break tradition and serve another term as president.
It will not happen tomorrow. But it seems his wish, though belated, will indeed come true.
Despite a race against the clock involving lengthy plenary sessions in Congress throughout July, it has proved impossible to debate the entire draft Constitution in three short weeks. The revision process is not now expected to be completed before the middle of August - and after that it is still due for popular approval through a novel referendum mechanism before coming into force.
But Mr. Fujimori's most pressing wish seems likely to be granted. The new Constitution will allow him to stand for immediate reelection as president, breaking a longstanding Peruvian, and indeed Latin American, tradition which prevents presidents standing again for office without an intervening period.
Peru's minority opposition fought the reelection clause tooth and nail in the commission that prepared the draft. But both the parliamentary majority and the country at large, opinion polls say, favor changing the rules for Fujimori. He still commands unwavering support from two-thirds of Peru's population.
"He's done more for this country in three years than anyone else in three decades," says government-party congresswoman Martha Chavez.
"For the sake of stability, he should be allowed to finish the job of reforming Peru," Ms. Chavez adds.
This could mean that Fujimori would govern Peru until the year 2005. Pro-government constitutionalists argue that if and when Fujimori is elected president in 1995, it will be under a new Constitution and therefore count as a first term. Reelection would then be possible in the year 2000 for another five years.
The regime's opponents, however, are claiming that Fujimori has cleverly hoodwinked the international community. It is now clear, they say, that the hidden agenda of April 1992's Army-backed "institutional coup" - when Congress was dissolved and the Constitution suspended - was to rewrite a Constitution ensuring Fujimori's remaining in power for at least 15 years.
Apart from the reelection issue, the only other constitutional element to have sparked genuine popular debate is the introduction of the death penalty for convicted terrorists. In the past 10 months, since the capture of Abimael Guzman Reynoso and other leading guerrilla chiefs, political violence has markedly declined, and Fujimori can repeat with growing conviction his pledge "to totally destroy" both Mr. Guzms Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) and the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA) before his
current term of office ends in 1995.
"In that scheme, the death penalty is extremely important," he says. "It will act as an effective deterrent and help ensure that there is no resurgence either of Shining Path or any other guerrilla activity in the future."
The president's view is echoed by many Peruvians, disgusted by 13 years of atrocities that have left 26,000 dead and cost the country some $22 billion in material damage. But the death penalty clause is likely to bring Peru into a head-on collision once again with international human rights organizations.
Their objection is not so much to the death penalty itself - many countries worldwide reserve capital punishment as an ultimate sanction - but to the shaky justice system through which sentences are meted out. Currently those accused of terrorism in Peru are tried by unidentifiable, faceless judges in secret military courts.
An Amnesty International report published in May claims that up to 4,200 Peruvians have been tried, or are awaiting trial, on terrorism-related offenses "under procedures which fail to satisfy international human rights standards." In the future, those found guilty under such dubious trial procedures could be summarily executed, Amnesty says.
ALSO arousing concern among Peruvian constitutionalists, opposition politicians, and foreign diplomats in Lima are the enhanced powers granted by the draft Constitution to the executive at the expense of the legislature.
"The Peruvian president has always enjoyed extensive personal power with few checks and balances," comments one Western diplomat in Lima, "but this Constitution increases that power substantially. What Peru needs is to strengthen its institutions, not the person of the president."
But Peruvians at large remain content with the aggressively authoritarian figure of Fujimori. "This country needs a strong hand," says taxi driver Pepe Garcia. "We've been ruled by too many weak and corrupt politicians for too long - let the "Chino" [the popular nickname for Fujimori] go on, forever, as far as I'm concerned."
For constitutional expert Marcial Rubio, the governing party's agenda is clear. "This Constitution is being created by a majority for one specific person who is currently occupying the presidency. It will last only as long as Fujimori remains in power and, a short while after he leaves, it will be drastically changed - but then, that's nothing new in Peru."