Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Venezuela voting: The entrenchment of Hugo Chavez's tyranny

By Michael J.W. Stickings

Over the weekend, as you might have heard, Venezuelans voted to lift the constitutional term-limit restriction on elected officials, thereby allowing Tyrant Chavez to run for re-election and essentially to remain in power as long as he wants. It was a huge victory for Chavez, who in December of 2007 lost a previous referendum on this and other constitutional reforms.

As I wrote at the time -- and I have written extensively (and critically) here on Chavez's slice-by-slice acquisition of power -- the 2007 referendum was not about reforming the constitution so much as it was about entrenching Chavez's tyrannical rule: "He threatened to resign if his reforms were defeated, if he was defeated, but he won't. This vote may slow down his 'revolution,' his slice-by-slice coup, his gradual acquisition of tyrannical rule, but he will remain in power and he will try again. And again. Until he gets what he wants."

And, yes, he tried again... and succeeded, winning about 54% of the vote.

"The doors of the future are wide open," he speechified from the balcony of his presidential palace, but, in reality, they're closed. The future is Chavez and Chavez alone -- 54% of voters made sure of that -- who will run for re-election in 2012 and, of course, win.

Of course, it was not an entirely free and fair vote, nor one that fully reflects the will of the Venezuelan people -- oh, sure, observers said it was free and fair, but it clearly wasn't. "Opposition figures... said victory had been achieved thanks to huge government funding and blanket state television coverage," reported the BBC (link above). "In 10 years we have had 15 elections, 15, and this has been the most unequal, the most abusive campaign of all," said opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez. "So that's why you are seeing more propaganda, more campaigning, more advertisement for the 'yes' vote."

As well, turnout was fairly low, if higher than in 2007, with just 11 million of 17 million eligible voters casting ballots. According to the BBC, "Chavez managed to persuade more of his supporters to vote, as turnout was considerably higher than in 2007. One factor was probably the change in the wording of the question, so that this time voters decided on whether term limits would be lifted for all officials not just the president." Not that it really matters about other elected officials. The vote was about Chavez, and he did what he had to do to win, pushing propaganda and getting his supporters to the polls.

Still, as bleak as this all seems -- and I remain a fervent foe of Chavez and his regime (and, weirdly, and not by my own doing, I'm now on the mailing list of the Venezuelan embassy in Washington, which spits out predictable propaganda) -- there may be a "silver lining," as Alvaro Vargas Llosa has suggested:

Hugo Chavez's victory in Sunday's constitutional referendum in Venezuela will allow him to run for re-election indefinitely, but it does not mean he will be able to establish a totalitarian state anytime soon.

*****

Even though the opposition was not able to defeat Chavez this time, the referendum confirmed that he still faces millions of Venezuelans who abhor his regime. The opposition obtained 45.6 percent of the vote -- 9 percentage points more than in 2006, when Chavez won his third term. The "no" vote won in five key states and got more than 40 percent in nine others. He was only able to win in one of the five states governed by the opposition -- and lost the state of Merida, governed by a Chavista.

If in next year's legislative elections the opposition obtains similar results, it will control almost half of the National Assembly -- a big shift with respect to the current situation, with Chavez in total control because the opposition boycotted legislative elections in 2005.

Perhaps more significantly, the results confirm that Chavez's base in the major urban centers, where Venezuela's biggest slums are concentrated, has been seriously eroded: His power is increasingly reliant on the more rural or provincial parts of the country.

Well, okay. Good.

The problem is that Chavez is still in power, and will remain in power, and still controls the levers of power, and is more powerful than he was last week. So while there may be cause for optimism -- with the country seemingly trending against Chavez -- tyranny, if not quite totalitarianism, is still the order of the day. And that isn't about to change anytime soon.

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