Chavez referendum defeated
Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez had his first ever electoral defeat this week since he came to power in 1999. Chavez had sought constitutional change that would allow him continue his rule beyond the two term limit currently stipulated, under which he must step down in 2013. The divisive figure who has gained notoriety and cult status due to his vehement criticism of the United States saw his proposals to amend 69 articles of the constitution rejected by the National Electoral Council by 51 per cent to 49 per cent.
Chavez had hoped his personal popularity, as a ‘saviour of the poor' would have carried the result in his favour and helped him continue his ‘revolution'. In a populist move the President promised that the average workday would be reduced from eight hours to six and promoted the rights of residents to decide how to spend government funds through communal councils. The fact the Chavez attempted to turn the referendum into a plebiscite on his rule, only to lose, will undoubtedly worry the president and his supporters. Holding aloft a copy of his 1999 constitution on a live television address after his defeat he told supporters “Don't be sad….we'll continue in the struggle to build socialism within the framework of this constitution”.
Had he been successful Chavez would have gained more control over the Venezuelan military, allowed further media censorship and suspension of civil liberties in times of ‘emergency', had the ability to choose local political leaders in a new federal system, and eroded the autonomy of the Central Bank.
He had claimed that his opposition were in collaboration with the US and said that a vote against him was a vote for George W. Bush. He had also stated that defeat might prompt partial suspension of oil exports to the US, although this seems a hollow threat considering the estimated 1.2 million barrels of oil a day Venezuela sends to the United States and the impact this has on the Venezuelan economy.
Turnout for the referendum was lower then expected at 56 per cent. It was initially thought that such a low turnout would favour Chavez, but a strong turnout by the middle and upper classes who by and large voted against his proposals ensured that this was not the case. The proposed reform did not find support among moderate Chavistas', with many who once aligned themselves with Chavez, such as the Catholic Church, actively opposing the President.
The result is indicative of a rise of an opposition that may thwart any future reform. Not only did Venezuela's students rally collectively against the President, but General Raúl Isaías Baduel, once a close confidante of Chávez as defense minister, garnered much support against Chavez as he publicly condemned the presidential stance. Members and supporters of the left-wing Party for Social Democracy (PODEMOS) who have served in coalition with Chavez claim that his lust for power has blurred his vision. Chavez himself claims that his dignified acceptance of this defeat confirms him as a true democratic leader claiming “there is no dictatorship here”. Many believe this historic result has ensured just that.