Venezuela: Chavez Loses-For Now

By Kennedy, Sebastian; Markovits, Martin | New Statesman (1996), December 10, 2007 | Go to article overview

Venezuela: Chavez Loses-For Now


Kennedy, Sebastian, Markovits, Martin, New Statesman (1996)


By a majority of just 150,000 votes, the Venezuelan electorate rejected a complex package of reforms to the constitution which would have allowed President Hugo Chavez to stand for indefinite re-election. The 2 December vote was Chavez's first setback, suggesting that some of his usual support peeled away.

A night of high drama saw the Venezuelan president concede victory by the slimmest of margins. The result means he will have to stand down when his term of office expires in January 2013.

It was the president's first defeat since he took office in 1998 and the first opposition election victory in 12 public votes. Until now, public support for the government has seemed insurmountable. Analysts believe that Chavez was partly let down by the high percentage (56 per cent) who chose to stay home rather than endorse or reject the wide-ranging reforms, but also say that moderate Chavistas had become alienated by their president's extreme rhetoric.

"Chavez waged a very confrontational campaign that turned off a lot of voters," says Elenis Rodriguez, national secretary for the opposition party Justice First. "He said if you do not vote for the reform, you are a traitor."

Rodriguez also believes that some people stayed home because they were worried about voter privacy. "Many did not agree with the reforms but were scared to vote for fear of losing their jobs."

Jorge Perez, a Chavista member of a political radio co-operative, notes that Chavez lost the media war: "The Chavistas did a very poor job of informing the public on the more positive aspects of the constitutional reform, like social security for the informal economy and the right for decent housing.

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"The opposition did a very effective job of highlighting the most controversial articles, like indefinite re-election and the status of private property. If you read the proposed constitution you would see that the right to private property is guaranteed, but if you followed the media campaigns you would think that the government wanted to confiscate all property," he says.

The Chavez campaign focused on international disputes, a strategy that would have appealed only to dedicated supporters whose votes were already guaranteed. At his closing rally, the president declared that "a vote against these reforms is a vote for George W Bush" and threatened to cut off oil supplies to the US if it attempted to "destabilise" the country after the elections.

There were also threats that Spanish banks in Venezuela would be nationalised if the King of Spain did not apologise for telling Chavez to shut up, and that diplomatic relations with Colombia might be cut off after President Alvaro Uribe's interference in his mediations with Colombia's FARC guerrillas. "Many in the barrios are Colombian immigrants who felt that Chavez disrespected their entire country, not just its president," says Rodriguez.

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