While Chile is preparing a new constitution that is the result of a democratic process, other countries in the region have seen their leaders advance the laws with less clear proposals and with authoritarian and populist touches.
One of them is El Salvador. It’s been a while since right-winger Nayib Bukele is no longer amenable to jokes that he’s a “millennial leader” and cool. What the young ruler has done is worthy of an autocrat’s cub. First, it went against the legislature, then over judges of the supreme court, and now, trying to change the country’s Charter, in force since 1983.
A few months ago, Bukele handed over to his deputy, Felix Ulloa, the leadership of a committee whose objective is to draft reforms to the national constitution. From what has turned out so far, they are not entirely negative, as they make concessions when it comes to individual rights such as equal marriage and relaxation of the draconian outright ban on abortion. Behind this is the idea of moving the so-called local Catholic Church away from political decisions. Reparations for human rights abuses in the crackdown on the civil war (1979-1992) are also promised.
The good news, however, stops there. It is planned to extend the president’s term from five to six years. In addition, the electoral court would leave the control of justice and would be an independent entity, with members appointed by the Executive. In both measures, there is ample room for Bukele to increase and centralize his powers.
Constitutional reform must also make the passage of laws in Congress easier. Instead of a two-thirds majority, it will require only 50% plus one vote.
The idea is to present these reforms to the 1983 text to Congress on September 15th, the day of the bicentennial of El Salvador’s independence. In parliament, Bukele’s party (Nuevas Ideas) is hegemonic. After that, they would have to be voted on in a referendum. But that won’t be an obstacle for Bukele, who remains a leader in popular approval in Latin America.
In a recent Gallup poll, 87% of Salvadorans affirmed their support for the president, while his administration has only 11% rejection.
In Mexico, left-wing president Andrés Manuel López Obrador is already halfway through his term in trouble with the electoral justice of his country. After his party, the Morena (Movement for National Regeneration) had shrunk from the Legislatures and its weird plebiscite to judge former presidents had a meager participation (7% of the electorate), the president decided to go after the electoral authorities.
AMLO (as it is known) considers that the National Electoral Institute (INE) and the Electoral Court of the Judicial Power of the Federation (TEPJF) are responsible for the low turnout in the last votes and thus indirectly hold them responsible for their own defeats. Attacks include calling electoral power “Frankenstein” and an instrument at the service of traditional parties.
The solution for this, he has already been bringing to the debate: an electoral reform. López Obrador stated that it would carry out a “total renovation” of these bodies, by removing all their employees. “A total change, they are not Democrats, they don’t respect the will of the population and they don’t measure up to the circumstances. We need an exchange of officials to establish authentic democracy in the country,” he said.
The proposal is expected to reach Congress in the coming weeks. It is not known, yet, how the mechanism to carry out this collective dismissal would be, when many are state employees, and what the new hires would be, if they were approved. But with so many priorities on the agenda, such as the coronavirus pandemic, its impact on the economy and illegal immigration, this does not seem to be the main issue facing the country.
It is also noteworthy that AMLO remains obsessed with the Mexican electoral system. After all, it is not new that he attacks this institution.
In 2006, AMLO did not accept defeat in the presidential race against the then winner, Felipe Calderón (PAN), and decided to campaign against the result. He even commanded the blockade of roads and camped in the Zócalo of Mexico City in protest. In 2012, he did the same when defeated by Enrique Peña Nieto (PRI).
Another who is looking to rewrite the laws of his country is also leftist Pedro Castillo, in Peru. Although he has been acting cautiously in these first weeks since taking office (on July 28), due to the controversies regarding his cabinet, the president made it clear in his campaign and in his inauguration that his idea was to change the country’s Constitution, from 1993, for a new one.
The problem starts with the law itself. According to the current text, it is not possible to form a Constituent Assembly or call a referendum to do so without going through Congress. In other words, the Executive alone cannot propose such a change. “It is not possible for the people to be condemned to remain a prisoner of the current Constitution,” Castillo raged in a speech. The political force of the president, the Perú Libre party, despite making up the largest caucus in the unicameral assembly in the country, does not have a majority.
While looking for improbable agreements before a Congress that almost rejected its first team of ministers out of hand, Perú Libre, the ruling party led by the controversial Vladimir Cerrón, is looking for an alternative to put the plan in motion. The group considers the current Constitution “neoliberal” and that it only serves the interest groups that command the country’s economy. For Castillo, it is necessary to incorporate the idea of a multicultural nation. This in theory. In practice, the opposition considers that a new Charter can be used for the same purpose as its allies and gurus, Venezuelan Hugo Chávez and Bolivian Evo Morales. Both in fact promoted new constitutions that were more inclusive and that were reflected in social improvements. However, on the other hand, they meant an expansion of the powers of these leaders and an authoritarian escalation.
It is important that Salvadoran, Mexican and Peruvian societies seek to monitor these processes through democratic and peaceful ways.