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by Humberto Marquez

Chavez Faces Serious Opposition to Reckon With (2006)

(IPS) CARACAS -- The constitutional reform promoted by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez was narrowly defeated in Sunday's referendum: 50.7 percent of those who turned out voted against the reform and 49.3 percent voted for it.

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

This is Chavez'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 National Electoral Council, 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 toward a socialist economy and society -- what Chavez describes as "21st-century socialism" -- under which private property would have been respected, but more public resources would have become public and "social" property in the hands of local communities and cooperatives.

The reform 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. It would also have allowed the president to redefine the administrative organization of the country.

Now that voters have rejected the proposed reforms, the president will not be able to be re-elected after his current term ends in February 2013. This will no doubt alter the course of Venezuelan political life, which has gravitated around the figure of Chavez for the past decade.

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

Chavez was re-elected a year ago with 7.3 million votes, a clear victory over the 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, including a two-month oil strike in late 2001 and early 2002, and an April 2002 coup, in which he was toppled for two days before his supporters and loyal army troops restored him to office. He was also likely alluding to the opposition's decision to boycott last year's parliamentary elections.

He told his opponents: "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: for now." Chavez led a failed coup attempt by junior military officers on Feb. 4 of that year.

"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 Chavez's leadership," said Oscar Schemel, the head of the Hinterlaces polling firm -- one of those that anticipated a possible defeat for the constitutional reform.

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 defeat of the reform might also point to "the birth of a new majority, a majority of citizens who are not socialist but who value solidarity and democracy," the pollster said.

Opposition leaders acknowledged Chavez's gesture in conceding defeat and called for reconciliation in this polarized country, while noisy celebrations broke out in middle- and upper-class neighborhoods in Caracas and other cities, with car horns blaring, cheering filling the air 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 recognize the work of the [National Electoral Council] and also the gesture by Hugo Chavez," Rosales said.

Other opposition leaders, such as Leopoldo Lopez, the 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 Chavez.

Teodoro Petkoff, the editor of the opposition newspaper Tal Cual and an outspoken critic of Chavez, 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 too early to predict the changes that Chavez will make in his policies and programs, 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 such as 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 Chavez. Whoever votes ‘no' is against me."

But to push his policies and projects through, Chavez 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-Chavez 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 license of a popular TV station in June.

Several former allies of Chavez also came out against the proposed constitutional amendments, such as the small, left-leaning social democratic Podemos party; retired general Raul Baduel, one of the president's long-time friends and colleagues, who helped restore him to power after the 2002 coup; and the president's ex-wife, Marisabel Rodriguez.

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Albion Monitor   December 4, 2007   (

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