- The Washington Times - Friday, August 29, 2003

An electoral body was formed this week that may referee a recall vote against Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. This suggests that the constitutional reforms that Mr. Chavez helped put in place are gaining a momentum of their own. The world’s fifth-largest oil exporter is at a critical juncture, and the performance of the government, the Venezuelan people, the U.S. and other foreign mediators could prevent or provoke bloody street violence, or worse.

The Venezuelan Supreme Court’s naming Monday of the National Electoral Council, which would oversee any referendum calling for new presidential elections, has helped to ease political tensions. But there are still potential flashpoints.

Many Venezuelans are demanding that the roughly 3 million signatures already collected months ago calling for a new presidential election be honored. The government maintains that these signatures can only be constitutionally collected after an elected official has completed half a term, which for Mr. Chavez was in August. But there is ambiguity on this point. While the constitution says the petition should be extended only after the halfway mark, it doesn’t stipulate when the signatures should be collected. Given this vagueness, either side could take to the streets if it feels cheated by the electoral body.

Mr. Chavez has not helped matters. On Tuesday, he claimed that the signatures collected “can’t be valid” and joked that some Venezuelans rose from the dead to participate. Only the electoral body should determine validity, and Mr. Chavez should remember he has much to lose by inflaming tensions.

Much of the opposition has little confidence that Mr. Chavez will honor the constitutional reforms he pushed forward that allow for such recall referendums. Before the electoral body was convened, many Venezuelans speculated that Mr. Chavez would prevent the body from being formed and thereby run out the clock for a recall of his entire administration.

But lead opposition member Rafael Alfonso told this newspaper in early June that widespread pressure would force Mr. Chavez to allow a referendum, and he said yesterday that he remains confident one will be held this year.

The opposition has also stressed the importance of the Group of Friends of foreign mediators, which includes the United States, Brazil, Mexico, Spain and Portugal. Washington and others must continue to keep the pressure on Mr. Chavez and suggest procedural steps for completing a potential referendum and election. In particular, the United States should urge Brazil’s President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva to take the lead, since he holds sway in Venezuela. During his visit to Caracas this week, Mr. da Silva said, “If the opposition completes the requirements…a referendum should be held as the constitution says.”

These statements will help ensure that Mr. Chavez upholds the constitution — and that could ensure peace and order in one of the world’s key oil-exporting countries.

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