Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Venezuela Still Muddy as Referendum Is OK'd ; A Recall Vote on President Hugo Chavez Is Set to Take Place in August - or Is It?

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Venezuela Still Muddy as Referendum Is OK'd ; A Recall Vote on President Hugo Chavez Is Set to Take Place in August - or Is It?

Article excerpt

Five years ago, sewer worker Emilio Galindes was so tired of Venezuela's corrupt politicians that he was willing to vote for anyone who was not part of the old guard. He cast his ballot for the firebrand leftist Hugo Chavez, who promised to end spiraling poverty and crack down on corruption.

Today the tables have turned. Mr. Galindes is rejoicing after last week's announcement that Mr. Chavez will face a binding recall referendum. Galindes says he's willing to vote for just about anyone else. "I thought Chavez could make the country a better place," he said at an opposition political rally on Saturday. "But he's made everything worse. The Venezuelan people are finally going to get rid of him."

Electoral authorities last week ruled that the opposition had collected the necessary 2.4 million signatures to trigger a referendum, constituting the first real opposition victory since Chavez came to power. The referendum, tentatively scheduled for early August, could ease the broiling political controversy that has split the country over the past two years.

But despite the opposition's elation, recalling Chavez is far from certain. Crucial terms of the vote still have to be decided, and millions of "chavistas" have promised to turn out in droves to support their president. But observers say that a successful recall of Chavez could completely upend the political order of the world's fifth-largest oil exporter.

The first potential pitfall for the opposition's referendum campaign is the date of the recall. If Chavez is recalled after Aug. 19, the Constitution dictates that the vice president will serve out his term - leaving the opposition stuck in the shadow of its nemesis until the end of 2006. The ideal scenario for the opposition is a recall before Aug. 19, since this would lead to elections within 30 days. The government is expected to do its best to push back the referendum date.

It is also not clear whether or not Chavez can run again if he is recalled, a crucial issue, since the opposition would probably split its ticket. The opposition's leadership is fractured, with no individual candidate being offered as an alternative to Chavez. Chavez's adversaries are a hodge-podge of political parties and civil society groups that range from reactionary right-wing groups to anti-Chavez communists with little in common other than a hatred of the president. …

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