- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 17, 2004

The triumph of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in Sunday’s recall referendum has edged oil prices lower and buoyed U.S. stocks. Investors are betting that Mr. Chavez’s decisive victory could resolve a protracted political crisis and ensure steady oil production in Venezuela, the world’s fifth-largest oil exporter. Social and political stability will hinge, though, on the behavior of Mr. Chavez and the opposition.

On Sunday, Venezuelans turned out in record numbers to vote in the referendum, waiting, in some cases, until midnight to vote. The massive turnout overwhelmed the country’s new computerized voting system. The voting was free of any major violence, but it remains unclear if it will usher in a period of civility and heightened adherence to democratic principles.

A strengthened Mr. Chavez would be wise to back away from some of his heavy-handed tactics and more despotic-sounding rhetoric of the past. His recent vow, for example, to remain in power until 2021 understandably riled many Venezuelans. He also should allow public employees who were fired after signing a petition in favor of a presidential recall referendum to regain their jobs. His latest move to stack the Supreme Court has been widely criticized by human-rights activists, such as Jose Miguel Vivanco and Daniel Wilkinson of Human Rights Watch, who said in a June Op-Ed in The Washington Post: “Chavez’s own government threatens to undermine this country’s fragile democracy through a political takeover of its highest court.”

Still, accusations by some opposition leaders of fraud in the referendum have undermined prospects for a vote audit. While the opposition should continue calling for such an audit, it should drop accusations that it is unable to prove and appear unlikely. The referendum should serve as a wake-up call to the opposition to make better calibrated, strategic steps for regaining power, in lieu of the radical stabs at immediate fixes that have consistently failed. The next presidential elections are in 2006, and the opposition should begin organizing now for that event.

Ahead of the election, the opposition could bolster its credibility by challenging Mr. Chavez’s specific transgressions, rather than gearing all efforts toward toppling the president. The opposition needs also to develop an attractive political vision for the future. Mr. Chavez is largely an outgrowth of the apathy, incompetence and corruption of past leadership. The opposition must demonstrate it offers a break from that.

U.S. officials, meanwhile, must stand ready to provide Mr. Chavez with any technical assistance to bolster democratic institutions and underpin stable oil output. The United States should also be prepared, though, to call out any glaring violation of democratic principles, should it occur.

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