It's Too Soon to Alter Argentina's Constitution

With eyes on the military and the economy, three leaders in South America struggle with reform

ARGENTINE President Carlos Saul Menem has been successfully carrying out an unprecedented economic reform in a country that has endured turmoil for more than half a century. The incumbent party's recent victory in congressional elections reinforces the popular support for the economic policies implemented by Finance Minister Domingo Cavallo. However, Mr. Menem and his main political advisers have also chosen to interpret their electoral victory as a sign of strong popular approval for a constitutional reform aimed at allowing the president to serve for two successive terms. Yet the process of reforming the Constitution represents a dangerous path for a country such as Argentina, where democratic institutions are not yet strong enough to sustain political shocks or abrupt legal changes. For instance, several members of the Supreme Court resigned recently, arguing that the political pressures generated by the president's office - while aimed at promoting the constitutional reform - have impeded the exercise of their duties.

Additionally, a left-wing minority within Congress is also promoting its own constitutional reform, while the armed forces still represent a threat to the country's democratic institutions. Clearly, even the initial stages of constitutional reform have generated a level of disruption incompatible with political stability.

A country's constitution is the most fundamental law defining the rules within which the private and public sectors coexist. The Argentine Constitution of 1853, modeled after the United States Constitution, nominally subscribes to fundamental concepts such as economic and political liberty, limited government, and an independent judiciary. Menem's main goal is to eliminate the constitutional clause preventing a president from serving two successive terms. At first, this may sound reasonable. Menem's reelection in 1995 would be a welcome event for all who favor a continuation of the social and economic reforms introduced by his administration. Paradoxically, a careful review of historical precedents in Argentina and elsewhere indicates that constitutional conventions are a Pandora's box.

Reforming a constitution in Argentina requires the assembly of a convention bringing together those members, generally the most powerful political figures, who will be in charge of shaping the new constitution. The final results usually stand in sharp contrast to the expectations of those who originally promote constitutional reforms. These unexpected outcomes occur because vocal minorities that lack broad popular support nevertheless have the power to block political decisionmaking within a convention.

Two-thirds of the votes are required in each of the two chambers in Congress in order for the president to be allowed to call for a constitutional convention. At present the incumbent party has obtained the necessary two-thirds majority vote in both Houses, but on different versions of the proposal. But many incumbent party senators do not plan to restrict themselves to revamping only the Constitution's ``reelection clause.'' Their goal is to implement fundamental and global changes in the 1853 Constitution by limiting the rights to private property. Members of Congress within the main opposition center-left Radical Party still display open hostility toward private enterprise. For example, key Peronist and Radical members of Congress adamantly oppose the Menem administration's proposals to finally extend intellectual property rights to all industries within the private sector. The 1853 Constitution clearly guarantees intellectual property rights to inventors in any industry.

Menem has even acknowledged the possible pernicious influence his own party's opposition could have during a convention. All these factors suggest that a constitutional reform is very likely to add a significant element of political uncertainty that, in turn, is likely to postpone the large amounts of domestic and foreign private investment needed for sustained economic growth.

In the Chamber of Deputies, the Peronist party could not gather enough votes from within its own ranks. To muster the two-thirds majority needed to call for a constitutional convention, the Peronists promised political and financial rewards to a large number of opposition-party deputies and their districts. This ``pork barrel'' approach has undercut the government's commitment to fiscal discipline and low inflation.

In recent interviews, Menem has indicated his conviction that he can be reelected, yet avoid the polarization resulting from a constitutional convention. He also has said that he would like to maintain the philosophical principles of the 1853 Constitution. However, his strong desire to be reelected clashes with the viability of his other goals. In lieu of reelection, Menem could cement his government policies by using his political prestige both to build a wider consensus within his party and to assure the election of a like-minded successor. Let us not sacrifice a unique opportunity for Argentina to modernize its economy and become an open society on the altar of short-term political strategies. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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