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Putting The Brakes On Hugo Chavez

ATLANTA,  (IPS) .- In a constitutional referendum on December 2,
voters in Venezuela gave a clear message to their president: ”Slow
down.” President Hugo Chavez’ own supporters refused to do what he
asked – vote on his constitutional reform proposals as if it were a
personal loyalty test to him. In fact, most probably do remain loyal
to him, but not to his frenzied drive to enact far-reaching reforms
that would concentrate extraordinary power in his hands and
fundamentally change the Venezuelan polity and economy.

This was Chavez’ first electoral defeat in his nine years in office.
The fact that he accepted the results, and that the electoral
authority actually reported a loss, surprised many. That it took nine
hours, instead of the promised two, to announce the results should
not come as a surprise. In extremely polarised contexts, leaders
often need time to adjust to a surprising defeat, and to consider how
they and their victors should present the results to their supporters
to avoid clashes in the streets.

Venezuela could profit from this experience if all sides (and the US
too) learn the lessons and capitalise on the opportunities it provides.

For the president, at least three lessons are crucial. The first is
that he needs to broaden his circle of advisors and encourage debate
among them. The closed system of information within the presidential
palace means that advisors may be afraid to bring bad news to the
leader, and that healthy debate is stifled, leading to rigidity,
out-of-touchness, and surprise results as on Sunday.

The second lesson for the president is that he has accomplished one
of his goals — to bring visibility to ”invisible” citizens. Many
previously marginalised Venezuelans now seem to feel empowered and
represented by the president, so empowered that many refused to
support him. But they also want concrete results — to lower the 18
percent inflation, to end the shortages of basic goods, to control
corruption and high levels of crime. Increasing government efficiency
and enlisting private sector collaboration to tackle these serious
problems seems to be the demand of the average Venezuelan, above the
vague concepts of 21st century socialism.

The third lesson is the change in the opposition. Both
newly-dissident chavistas and longer-term political opponents acted
responsibly after their victory. They did not gloat, but instead
asked for dialogue and offered to support some of the president’s
more popular proposals such as social security for self-employed
workers. The president now has a golden opportunity to test the
opposition’s sincerity by accepting their offers, instead of denigrating them.

The ”new” opposition appears to be already learning that
participating in the democratic game can pay dividends. The ”fraud”
card adopted after the failed 2004 recall referendum hurt them in
subsequent elections as their supporters stayed home, and had the
most dramatic impact in the boycott of the 2005 legislative elections
leaving the national assembly comprised 100 percent of Chavez’
supporters. This time around, the extensive safeguards over the
electoral system negotiated over the last several elections led
moderate opposition leaders to reject the immoderate charges that the
National Electoral Council had padded the results to make Chavez’
defeat less embarrassing to him.

With a huge post-election audit of the paper receipts from 54 percent
of the electronic voting machines and a quick count from the domestic
observer group Ojo Electoral both confirming the outcome, it is hard
for either side to credibly question the results. Granted, the
campaign process leaves much to be desired: the inequitable news
media coverage in favour of the government’s proposal, the
government’s access to extensive petroleum revenues, and a still
inadequately-audited voter’s list remain to be fixed.

The way that new actors energised the ”No” vote should also not be
lost on the political opposition. A newly-awakened student movement
and dissidents from within chavismo itself focused people on the
substance of the proposals rather than making it a referendum on the
president. Wether this disparate group can capitalise on the moment
and forge alternative political messages for those who wish to
compete against Chavez will be tested in 2008.

President Chavez’ first electoral loss leaves him far from defeated.
The opposition did not gain many new voters; instead, Chavez lost 40
percent of his voters compared with the 2006 presidential
election. But he still commands significant popular support as well
as control over the main national institutions, extraordinary
petroleum revenues, five more years in office, and six more months of
legislative-decree power. He will continue to try through all of
these routes to implement his agenda, but he will be more successful
if he listens more to his citizens.

The final lesson from the December 2 vote is for international
actors. We should not underestimate the capacity of the Venezuelan
people to provide broad constraints on their government, even when
institutional checks and balances are practically non-existent. As
long as President Chavez follows the electoral path, the Venezuelan
people will determine how far they will support his ideas, and when
it is time to put on the brakes.(END/COPYRIGHT IPS)

By Jennifer McCoy (*)

(*) Jennifer L. McCoy is a political science professor at Georgia
State University, and director of the Americas Programme at The
Carter Centre in Atlanta.