The (possibly) inevitable Constitutional Assembly

Last September’s Parliamentary elections showed that, even with the cards stacked against it, Venezuela’s opposition could win the popular vote. Knowing this will serve us well in 2012, when the next Presidential election will take place.

So, in the spirit of the coming weekend, let’s get ourselves carried away and ponder the optimistic scenario. Suppose an opposition candidate were to win in 2012. Then what?

The decay in Venezuela’s institutional fabric is wide and deep. The Supreme Tribunal is composed of all sorts of shady characters, and in a few days, we will see yet another high-profile chavista hoodlum joining the club.

But the problem runs deeper. It has less to do with the characters, and a lot to do with our country’s basic institutional framework. There is a case to be made that everything from the length of terms of office of the President, Governors, Mayors and congressmen, to the way local governments are financed, should be re-examined.

The struggles between the federal, local, and the so-called “communal” governments has never been sharper, and these would only be heightened in an opposition government. Can we honestly say that decentralization is so strongly entrenched in our constitutional fabric, so as to withstand an attack from an overzealous central government?

Whether it’s the issue of maximum prison penalties in a country besieged by violence, the protection of freedom of the press and judicial independence, limits on executive power, the proper role of government in economic life, the organization of our oil industry, or the protection of basic property rights, the conclusion is the same: the 1999 Constitution has proven powerless in living up to its proclamations, and making its principles a reality.

There is, however, a strong argument to be made against a Constitutional Assembly. Many reasonable people will say that the problem is not with the Constitution but with the people implementing it. They will claim that the Constitution is fine, but that it has simply been violated.

That may all well be true. But without the power of a Constitutional Assembly, removing the same people responsible for its violation will become close to impossible. And let’s not forget that a Constitutional Assembly doesn’t necessarily have to start from scratch, as many of the provisions in the 99 charter could, and probably would, stay in place.

Furthermore, even if you accept the 99 Constitution – and its subsequent “reform – as close to being perfect, we have to ask ourselves: do we really believe Presidents should hold office for six years? Do we honestly believe it’s convenient to allow Presidents to be re-elected indefinitely? And do we really think that the current administrative division in the Caracas Metropolitan Area is conducive to effective governance?

It’s premature to be making a serious case for a Constitutional Assembly. But it may be the right time to get used to the idea.

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