Venezuela: Defeat for Chávez

Chavez with Constitution

The constitutional reform promoted by Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez was narrowly defeated in Sunday’s referendum, in which the ‘No’ vote took 50.7 percent, against 49.29 percent for the ‘Yes’ vote.

Chavez with Constitution

(IPS) The constitutional reform promoted by Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez was narrowly defeated in Sunday’s referendum, in which the ‘No’ vote took 50.7 percent, against 49.29 percent for the ‘Yes’ vote.

Because of the narrow margin, the National Electoral Council (CNE) did not report the outcome until the wee hours of Monday morning.

This is Chávez’s first defeat in the 12 elections held since he first took office in 1998.

"The tendency is clear and irreversible," announced the president of the CNE, Tibisay Lucena, reporting the results after 88 percent of the ballots were counted, when there were 4.504 million ‘No’ votes, 4.379 million ‘Yes’ votes, and 118,693 blank votes.

The reform would have accelerated the move towards a socialist economy and society, what Chávez describes as "21st century socialism", under which private property would have been respected, but public resources would have gone towards public and "social" property in the hands of local communities and cooperatives.

It would also have strengthened the president’s power, removing presidential term limits, lengthening the presidential term of office from six to seven years, limiting the Central Bank’s autonomy and mandating closer coordination between the Bank and the executive branch, and allowing the president to redefine the administrative organisation of the country.

Now that voters rejected the proposed reforms of the constitution that was rewritten under Chávez and approved in a 1999 referendum, the president will not be able to be reelected after his current term ends in February 2013 — a prospect that could bring changes in Venezuelan political life, which has gravitated around the figure of Chávez for the past decade.

The high abstention rate of 49 percent "hurt us. Three million people did not come out to vote for us," said the president after the outcome was announced.

Chávez was reelected a year ago with 7.3 million votes, against 4.3 million taken by his rival Manuel Rosales.

On Monday, the president thanked "those who voted for my proposal as well as those who voted ‘No’, and I congratulate them, because they have understood that this is the route to take, not shortcuts."

He was alluding to the opposition’s tactics of the past, like a two-month oil strike in late 2001 and early 2002, an April 2002 coup, in which he was toppled for two days before his supporters and loyal army troops restored him to office, and the opposition’s decision to boycott last year’s parliamentary elections.

He also told his opponents to "Manage this victory well. Measure it well, mathematically. Our struggle is a long one and I tell you, as I did on Feb. 4, 1992 (when he led a failed coup attempt by junior military officers): for now."

"What has happened might mean that we are seeing the end of the phase of social vindication in Venezuela, which began with the Caracazo and which catapulted Chávez’s leadership," Oscar Schémel, head of the Hinterlaces polling firm — one of those that anticipated a possible defeat for the constitutional reform — told IPS.

The Caracazo was the name given to a week of mass protests and rioting in February 1989 that followed the implementation of stringent structural adjustment measures.

The triumph of the ‘No’ might also point to "the birth of a new majority, a majority of citizens who are not socialist but who value solidarity and democracy," said the pollster.

Opposition leaders acknowledged Chávez’s gesture in conceding defeat and called for reconciliation in this polarised country, while noisy celebrations broke out in middle and upper-class neighbourhoods in Caracas and other cities, with car horns blaring, cheering, and fireworks going off in the middle of the night.

"We congratulate the Venezuelan people for this victory for democracy. Let’s bring an end to the confrontations, because we are a single nation. Let’s recognise the work of the CNE and also the gesture by Hugo Chávez," said Rosales.

Other opposition leaders, like Leopoldo López, mayor of a small district in Caracas, or Luis Ignacio Planas, the head of the COPEI party, also called for reconciliation, and for dialogue with Chávez.

Teodoro Petkoff, the editor of the opposition newspaper Tal Cual and an outspoken critic of Chávez, applauded what he described as "the profound democratic sentiment that is deeply rooted in the Venezuelan people," and concurred with the president in that "shortcuts" were "defeated by this democratic victory scored through the route of democracy."

It is still early to predict the changes that Chávez will make in his policies and programmes, but a week ago he said that if he lost the referendum, he would have to "enter a period of deep reflection, and start looking for a successor."

In the final stretch of the campaign, he stopped touting social aspects of the proposed reform like the incorporation of informal economy workers into the social security system or the reduction of the workday from eight to six hours, and told voters "Vote Yes for Chávez. Whoever votes No is against me."

But to push his policies and projects through, Chávez still has the loyalty of 161 members of the 167-seat parliament, as well as a law that enables him to legislate by decree in roughly a dozen areas, until June 2008.

Among the opposition, the most novel development was the appearance of an anti-Chávez student movement, with tens of thousands of university students taking to the streets in numerous demonstrations against the reform in November, after they protested against the government’s decision not to renew the broadcasting licence of a popular TV station in June.

Several former allies of Chávez also came out against the proposed constitutional amendments, like the small left-leaning social democratic Podemos party; retired general Raúl Baduel, one of the president’s long-time friends and colleagues (Chávez is a former lieutenant colonel), who helped restore him to power after the 2002 coup; and the president’s ex-wife Marisabel Rodríguez.