- The Washington Times - Friday, February 13, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Voters in Venezuela go to the polls Sunday to decide whether to allow President Hugo Chavez and other elected officials to run for office in perpetuity by ending term limits. Chavez was elected to his second six-year term in 2006 and is constitutionally required to leave office in 2012. Polls show a tight race, which is surprising given the degree of officially sanctioned persecution being visited on the opposition.

Chavez is employing his usual class-conflict rhetoric, seeking to mobilize the poor to “defend the revolution” from the middle and upper classes. Chavez’s shock troops are combing the slums seeking to boost turnout, mobilizing the masses with sloganeering, as well as distributing cash and alcohol.

Student-led opposition groups, whose evocative slogan is “No Means No,” have faced intimidation and violence. Members of the anti-Chavez press have been beaten and killed. Most recently Chavez has charged a number of prominent oppositionists with being part of something called “The Puerto Rico Pact,” an alleged U.S.-backed plan by “enemies of the homeland” to “spread chaos” and “erase Chavez as the candidate and leader of the on-going revolutionary process in Venezuela.”

This is Chavez’s second attempt to lay the legal groundwork for a lifetime in office. In 2007 he held a referendum to try to push through a grab bag of 69 public policies that would have, consolidated unprecedented power in the hands of the president; instituted communal councils and collective property; effectively nationalized banks, agriculture and the oil industry; and declared “the mandate to unify Latin America.” Chavez certainly does not lack vision. But that attempt was narrowly defeated, so this time Chavez is taking a first-things-first approach: Organize the system so he can be president for life, then move on to other things.

Referendum has long been a favorite tool of authoritarian rulers to give a veneer of legitimacy to their reckless abuse of power. Plato’s critique of democracy tells us that tyrants are born from the angry masses, that freedom and justice find no safety when the passions of the mob are unleashed. This is the primary reason the Founding Fathers rejected democracy in favor of republicanism. Not everything should be decided by a 50 percent plus one ballot. As the late John P. Roche once observed, the most democratic assembly is the lynch mob, because there is only one dissenting voice.

If the Chavez forces prevail on Sunday their victory will be touted as an “irreversible gain of the revolution.” But it will not matter if Chavez loses. We would be delighted to see him leave office some day, preferably soon, but if Sunday’s attempt fails there is always 2010, 2011, and 2012 before Mr. Chavez will be compelled to resort to other, more blatant means to prolong his disreputable rule.

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