- - Monday, November 28, 2011

MENDOZA, Argentina — Francisco Perez still has two weeks to go before he takes office as governor here, but he already is shaking up national politics with his bid to change the state constitution and remove term limits to his re-election.

If he succeeds, hard-line loyalists of President Cristina Fernandez could get a boost in their national campaign to end presidential term limits and make her president for life, political observers say.

Removing the constitutional limits to a president serving only two consecutive terms could put Argentina on a path following leftist leaders Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, Rafael Correa in Ecuador and Evo Morales in Bolivia. All three countries changed their constitutions to allow presidents to serve longer or, in Mr. Chavez’s case, indefinitely.

Argentina’s newly found gas and oil deposits make it a regional player in energy markets, attracting Chinese investment as its left-leaning government tilts toward Mr. Chavez’s economic policies.

Since she was re-elected president in a landslide victory a month ago, Ms. Fernandez has tried to dampen talk of changing the constitution, saying she is “too tired” to serve a third term.

But hard-liners in the Front for Victory party have their political fortunes and, for some, their legal futures tied to her remaining in office. Some political operatives could face prosecution on corruption or other charges if the opposition took power.

“There are factions within the government who need this [constitutional] reform,” political commentator Joaquin Morales Sola said. “Nobody, for the time being, has the capacity to replace the president.”

The hard-liners are noted for their intense loyalty to Ms. Fernandez.

“Those who surround her are more papist than the pope,” said Francisco Leiva, who teaches political science at Mendoza’s National University of Cuyo.

Ms. Fernandez succeeded her husband, Nestor Kirchner, as president in 2007, sparking talk of what commentators called a “leapfrog” strategy of passing the office between husband and wife and avoiding the constitutional limits.

Under the current constitution, a president can run a third time only after sitting out one term. Mr. Kirchner died of a heart attack in October 2010.

The debate on ending presidential term limits grew during the campaign when Fernandez loyalist Diana Conti, a congresswoman from the state of Buenos Aires, called for an “eternal Cristina” in the presidential mansion.

Ms. Fernandez’s aides, who have been quick to dismiss talk of ending term limits on the presidency, have remained silent on Mr. Perez’s efforts in Mendoza.

Last month, Mr. Perez, a member of Ms. Fernandez’s party, called for an end to gubernatorial term limits as part of wide-ranging changes he proposed to the constitution of this western state, where a strong economy is fueled by wine exports and tourism.

Mr. Perez’s bid is symbolic because “Mendoza has always been the barrier nobody could overcome,” said Mr. Morales Sola, who serves as a political analyst for La Nacion newspaper.

Since the end of Argentina’s military dictatorship in 1983, every Mendoza governor has wanted to reform the state constitution, said Walter Cueto, a political scientist at the National University of Cuyo.

Mr. Perez said the 1916 state constitution, the oldest surviving charter in the country, is outdated and needs a comprehensive revision.

“One must not reduce the reforms to my [term-limit] comment,” Mr. Perez said in an interview. However, he added, the term limit violates his “equality under the law.”

While the governor is limited to one term, mayors and legislators in the state have no such restrictions.

The current Mendoza governor, Celso Jaque, also of the Front for Victory, also has endorsed constitutional reform.

Regardless of whether Mr. Perez succeeds in reforming the Mendoza constitution, Fernandez loyalists still will face major legislative obstacles against changing the national one.

Her party holds majorities in both houses of the 329-seat Congress but lacks the necessary two-thirds majority in either chamber required for initiating constitutional changes.

The national debate intensified during the presidential campaign when Hermes Binner, governor of the state of Santa Fe, suggested scrapping the entire congressional system and adopting a parliamentary one. That could allow the party leader to serve unlimited terms as prime minister.

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