Peru's Never-Ending Quest for the Perfect Constitution ; Congress Is Debating a Major Constitutional Overhaul, Its Third in 23 Years

Article excerpt

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 Valentin Paniagua formed a blue- ribbon panel to make recommendations on constitutional change. …