President Hugo Chávez, as expected, is pushing ahead with plans for an early national referendum, on February 15, to have Venezuela’s constitution amended to allow for indefinite presidential re-election – in this particular instance, his own. What was unexpected, however, is that he is now proposing indefinite re-election for all popularly elected posts − that is, governors, national and regional representatives, mayors and municipal authorities, etc.
Mr Chávez does not seem to like the term “indefinite re-election”; he prefers to speak of “unrestricted nomination.” Moreover, he and his spokesmen are claiming that they are simplifying the referendum. Instead of multiple articles and questions as in his first referendum of December 2007, which he lost, the process is being reduced to five inter-related articles and essentially one question: whether or not any person holding an elected post would be able to run for successive terms without restrictions.
But semantics aside, everyone, including Mr Chávez, knows that the referendum is principally about allowing him to stay in office after his current term ends in 2012. The critics charge that Mr Chávez wants to perpetuate himself in power. Mr Chávez simply says that if someone is doing a good job, then he or she should be allowed to remain in office for as long as possible. He naturally includes himself in this category and asserts that he wishes to continue in office until at least 2019, to complete what he calls “the third phase of the revolution.”
Mr Chávez also argues that he is actually making a break with what he calls the “old democracy,” that is, the “liberal” or “classic” or “bourgeois” model, as he describes it, which could be said with some justification to have only served the interest of the elites. Thus, Mr Chávez wants to expand political rights and “transfer power to the people,” as part of his ongoing efforts to establish a new model of “participatory democracy” as opposed to more conventional “representative democracy.”
According to the distinguished, Spanish political scientist and expert on constitutional law, Manuel García Pelayo (1909-1991), “representative democracy” is a form of government through which the people delegate power to authorities periodically elected in free elections. In “participatory democracy,” on the other hand, the people are allowed more direct involvement in the political process and the leader uses popular referendums as a decision-making tool for enacting legislation instead of relying on elected parliamentary representatives.
This latter approach to governance is generally favoured by populist rulers and Mr Chávez is no exception.
For the Venezuelan opposition, however, this is the thin edge of a totalitarian wedge. Elements in the opposition argue that a truly democratic president, faced by the collapse in the price of oil and the prospect of a grave economic downturn, would have convened some sort of national dialogue inclusive of the opposition and the private sector. But that does not appear to be Mr Chávez’s style.
For the opposition, the holding of another referendum so soon after the 2007 defeat, is a sure sign of a pathological obsession with power. After all, Mr Chávez has almost another four years in office, the equivalent of an entire presidential term in the United States. But he appears more willing to channel his undisputed energy into dissipating national resources and exhausting his own political capital in another bid for perpetual power.
Mr Chávez is however undeterred by such concerns and is characteristically bullish about winning the referendum. But it may not be as easy as he thinks.
Mr Chávez boasts that he enjoys a 70% approval rating, though most polls put it at between 50 and 60%, especially in the face of the fall in oil prices, which will affect the President’s handouts from the national coffers, and deep concerns about the sustainability of the economy and the fragility of the social fabric, with increased crime and the rising cost of living affecting both physical and economic security.
In the presidential elections of 2006, Mr Chávez won 63% of the popular vote. In the 2007 referendum, he suffered a narrow but humiliating defeat, with the opposition gaining 51% of the vote. This was his first defeat in eleven national polls in nine years and it signalled a turning point for Mr Chávez.
More recently, in the local and regional elections of November 23, 2008, the multi-party opposition won five of the twenty-two state governorships, including the four most important states in the country, and the mayoralties of the two largest cities, Caracas and Maracaibo, allowing the opposition to claim, with some justification, that the Venezuelan political map had been redrawn.
Now, the opposition is once again trying to rally their supporters to vote “No.” They are under no illusions as to the enormity of the task before them.
Their recent gains have been in the face of all the dirty tricks the chavistas could manage, including massive and questionable use of public funds for electioneering; intimidation, blackmail even, with the threat of violence never far from the surface; and the improper, if not illegal, use or abuse of state television and radio by Mr Chávez to campaign for his platform.
But perhaps this is the new democracy Mr Chávez is seeking: a charged and confrontational system of governance that is nothing more than populist authoritarianism.
The coming referendum will either energize Venezuelans again in their long-running quest for an acceptable, working democratic model or it could end up sapping the national spirit with unpredictable consequences.