May 22, 2013
Much of the current noise about constitutional reform (still mostly a preventive bid by the opposition, perhaps as a facile path to unity, rather than any official initiative) dwells on the similarities between the alleged third term ambitions of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and her 1989-99 Peronist predecessor Carlos Menem but perhaps the real story lies in the very different contexts of the two periods. For many in the CFK camp the essence of the current Constitution lies far more in its 1994 “neo-liberal” (or neo-conservative) reform than in its 1853-60 origins (also liberal) — a period of privatizations when a market economy was seen as democracy’s natural twin more than any other time (many CFK acolytes would thus regard the 1994 amended version with the same repugnance as bestowed by Chile’s recent centre-left administrations on the constitution bequeathed by Augusto Pinochet). When the Kirchner presidencies began in 2003, they started by gingerly testing the limits of constitutional rule — after often finding themselves pushing at an open door, they advanced to a phase where they did pretty much as they liked without regard to constitutional rectitude (even when warned by the Supreme Court) but now they are reaching a stage where they would like to abolish this mismatch between theory and practice. A constitutional reform by the same party today would be the complete opposite of 1994 — removing all constraints against elected presidents to enforce the popular will and control the economy as they saw fit without being hampered by “institutional fetishism” (with perhaps such exotic ingredients as an “indigenous” model of property rights).
One reason for so much focus on a third CFK term is that it is one of the very few items in the “going for everything” agenda which cannot be achieved without changing the Constitution — with its current majority in Congress (plus opposition fellow-travellers) the CFK administration enjoys full potential to convert Argentina into a Venezuela or a Bolivia with the blessing of at least two of the three branches of government (a new version of the classic two-thirds majority). This leads many people to the suspicion that the third term is the only real purpose of constitutional amendment if even the most radical reforms can be (and are) enacted or decreed anyway — the real test for this suspicion would be whether constitutional reform would go ahead if a third CFK term had to be withdrawn for tactical reasons.
If so, it would be clear that the centralization of state power is at least as much the issue as an eternal personal sway.