- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 12, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

COMMENTARY:

Feb. 15 is taking on major significance, not just in the United States, but also in Venezuela. The Obama administration’s bold target (termed movable to month’s end if necessary) for rushing congressional approval of a massive economic “stimulus” bill is a critical and, many argue, unnecessary test of big government versus market-driven economics.

For Venezuela, however, voting on Sunday will determine whether the country continues nearly 50 years of democracy or reverts to dictatorship.

As recently observed in these pages by my colleague, former senior Venezuelan diplomat Norman Pino, if Venezuelan voters choose to remove a constitutional two-term presidential limit, allowing Hugo Chavez to run indefinitely for president, the possibility of a dictatorship will have ironically been democratically approved.

Just days before the referendum - mounted at Mr. Chavez’s behest after losing a “constitutional reform” election in December 2007 - the outcome is in doubt. This, notwithstanding a protest march by more than 500,000 “No” vote citizens on Caracas’ streets, Feb. 7. Among outcome variables: Chavez supporters are expected to use every device possible to assure victory for the “Yes” side.

An interesting aspect of the demonstration in the capital was the virtual absence of red-shirted pro-Chavez hecklers that had bedeviled earlier anti-referendum activities. Perhaps anticipating last week’s massive outpouring of support by the opposition, the Yes side feared any confrontation would turn into violence and decided to stay on the sidelines.

The appearance of calm and disinterested reason would coincide with the past few weeks of nonaggressive pro-Chavez campaigning, which largely focused on praising the Bolivarian socialist revolution’s leader.

It has taken Hugo Chavez 10 years to come to this climactic point: he has promised - faithlessly - to abide by the people’s decision, this time. In fact, whichever wins, the losing side will continue the fight.

Although those who had followed his early career knew him to be a radical, his first years in power displayed a democratic face. Mr. Chavez’s energetically mandated 1999 constitution - Venezuela’s 27th since independence in 1811 - enshrined several modern democratic principles in its otherwise turgid 350 articles. A key clause: The president is limited to two terms in office.

However, steady steps have been taken to prolong his presidential years (the term was first lengthened from five years to six) and to centralize the government’s grip on more and more aspects of society - particularly the economy and education. These steps have resulted in the country being radically different from the Venezuela of 1999.

There is no denying Mr. Chavez maintains an approval rating hovering around 50 percent. However, most of his government’s policies are roundly rejected by up to 80 percent of voters, a factor giving the opposition hope.

Besides socialization, Venezuelans react negatively to a host of issues and put the blame squarely on the government, but not the president who effectively controls every lever of power. Large majorities are appalled at well-reported peccadilloes including:

- Steady increase of violent crime. During my two-week visit four months ago, Caracas media regularly reported double digit daily murder figures.

- Spiking of annualized inflation to 35 percent and growing. Particularly painful for the poor, food inflation is 50 percent and climbing.

- Corruption at every governmental level and throughout much of the private sector.

- Squandering billions in oil wealth to buy the political affections of half the region’s governments.

- Cozying up to the most notorious international despots, especially Cuba, Iran, North Korea and Russia.

But the popular anger has not submerged the mercurial Hugo Chavez, so far. Curiously, the situation is analogous to U.S. voters who regularly register their strong dissatisfaction with Congress but approve of their own representatives.

Polling indicates a clear majority do not favor lifting presidential term limits. Several analysts believe this dislike will be greater than affection for Mr. Chavez.

The imponderables are, first, a possible low vote following the large turnout in November’s regional and local elections, narrowly won by Mr. Chavez overall but with major opposition victories in the main cities and states. This could result in more Chavez loyalists going to the polls than the less well-organized, more individualistic opposition.

A second factor is corruption of the voting process. Analysts believe Chavez forces won at least two governorships and numerous mayoralties through manipulation of voter rolls and voting machines in the November elections. A special factor of the voting machines that discourages opposition voting is that the authorities can determine how each and every voter has voted. Fear of government retaliation for voting “No” could be significant.

Robert Bottome, founder of Veneconomia.com - for nearly three decades the country’s leading economic, political and social analysis group - observes: “There won’t be enough observers. The government has seen to it that many new voting places have been created at remote locations and ‘peopled’ with people who have not voted in the last three elections. There are dozens of reports of cedulas [ID cards] being issued in the names of those nonvoters … the idea being to send out people with fake IDs to vote 10 to 12 times each. Add to that the massive publicity and pressures on government employees. … I would say chances are (a) the ‘No’ will garner the most valid votes, but (b) thanks to the fraud and impossibility of covering all voting stations the CNE will report the ‘Yes’ as the winner, unless (c) the ‘No’ actually garners 6 of every 10 ‘real’ votes. [In December 2007, the real count was 55 percent to 45 percent against Chavez’s reforms, but was reported as 51-49. I figure with the ‘improvements’ in the system, you need a 60-40 ‘Yes’ vote to get 51-49.]”

As the fateful voting on Sunday approaches, the questions are thus threefold: whether popular affection for Mr. Chavez will outweigh a strong dislike for unlimited presidential terms; whether enough opposition citizens will be emboldened to vote; whether opposition surveillance of polling stations can impede Chavista efforts to tamper with actual results.

It may well be that the Democrats’ heavy majorities in Congress carry the day for President Obama’s huge stimulus plan, which this observer believes will prove seriously detrimental to recovering from the United States’ current depressed economic state and create major inflation.

However, it can be hoped, having endured 10 years of Hugo Chavez’s corrupt steadily sinking economy, a clear majority of voters will vote against allowing him to run for unlimited terms as president. The country, the region and the spirit of democracy deserve no less.

John R. Thomson is a geopolitical analyst and specializes in assessing developments in developing countries.

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