Democracy is alive and well in Venezuela. Accusations of dictatorship, fraud and tyranny from the opposition and the international community can be laid to rest. It’s about time. On Sunday President Hugo Chávez received his first electoral defeat after winning nearly a dozen consecutive national ballots since his election to the presidency in 1998. The outcome of the referendum on sweeping constitutional reforms that Chávez and the National Assembly put to the people was probably the best possible result. The 51-to-49 percent defeat of the government’s proposed overhaul of the 1999 Constitution represents a significant victory for the opposition sectors that mobilized against it, but it may also prove positive for the Chávez coalition and for Venezuela’s image in the international arena.
The wide array of groups making up the opposition have a sordid history including coupmongering, oil sabotage, election boycotts and a habit of refusing to recognize electoral results. Had the reform been approved by as narrow a margin as the one by which it was defeated, violent protests, accusations of fraud and refusal to recognize the results would have ensued. Large numbers of T-shirts decrying fraud are reported to have been printed in anticipation, and some opposition spokespeople had called for nonrecognition of the results and destabilizing protests if the reforms were approved. Hopefully, this victory will persuade the opposition to participate actively in the democratic process in the future. Already, the reform process led the opposition to embrace and vigorously defend the existing constitution, which it had previously scorned. Progress is being made.
If the opposition seeks continued electoral success it needs a concrete vision for the country, a national political project that can unify its ranks and present Venezuelan voters with a program to counter Chávez’s ambitious, if vague, vision for Bolivarian socialism. The only thing that currently unifies the opposition is a shared hatred for Chávez. In a country where he remains wildly popular and widely loved, that is not enough to win elections. And Sunday’s victory notwithstanding, the opposition does not appear any closer to a coherent political agenda. Leopoldo Lopez, the charismatic mayor of one of Caracas’s wealthiest districts, who has been accused of participating in the 2002 coup against Chávez, said, “We, the opposition, can’t, nor do we want, to present a project to compete with the government’s.” Thus the opposition garnered only marginally more actual votes in Sunday’s referendum than it did a year ago when Chávez won re-election with a staggering twenty-five-percent spread. The opposition didn’t do better; the Chavistas did worse.
Abstention increased from 25 percent in the 2006 presidential election to 45 percent in Sunday’s referendum, and most of the missing 3 million votes came from Chávez’s ranks. Where were those 3 million voters? How could Chávez only win 4.5 million votes when his recently founded Unified Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) has more than 5 million newly registered red-shirt-wearing members? The specific content and process of the reform itself is part of the answer: millions of people were not sufficiently convinced that the reform was an essential part of the Bolivarian Revolution to give it their support, and yet the government plowed forward rather than slowing down to make time for internal debate. The sixty-nine proposed reforms covered a wide range of issues from allowing indefinite re-election for the president to reducing the workday to six hours, but there was little time or space for discussion, debate or study of the changes. Cadres in the PSUV were expected to vote the line without having been given space to express reservations or concerns about the reform. Almost every Chavista I spoke with in the months before the referendum expressed criticisms of some reforms and of having no choice but to vote yes or no on two blocks of more than thirty unrelated, wide-ranging amendments. One friend, for example, supported the proposed expansion of social security for workers in the informal sector but not articles augmenting presidential powers, yet, had he chosen to vote, he would have had to vote yes or no on the block of reforms as a whole.
The government’s failure to include and mobilize its own ranks forces it to recognize serious shortcomings. Chávez’s wide base of support is contingent, not guaranteed. Political leaders must constantly and perpetually earn support through concrete action and results. Venezuelans of all political affiliations recognize grave problems with corruption, bureaucracy, nepotism, political bullying, violent crime and shortages of basic food products like milk. The constitutional reform would not have solved those problems, and the campaigning distracted attention from them. The reform process was a terrible example of the participatory democracy the Chávez government advocates.
Taking the high road, Chávez conceded his loss on the same day as the referendum and congratulated the opposition. But he also stubbornly declared that he’s not “withdrawing a single comma of this proposal…. The proposal is still alive.” In the meantime, many of the proposed constitutional reforms can be implemented via normal legislation, and ministers have already begun lobbying the National Assembly to do so. Regardless of whether Chávez calls for a new constitutional reform next year or at the end of his term in 2012, the government’s ability to efficiently and transparently administer elections and then concede defeat with such a slim margin should restore faith in the country’s electoral system both among the opposition and international critics.
The outcome of the referendum was positive for Venezuela internationally because it reconfirms for the world that Chávez’s impressive string of previous electoral victories were earned, not stolen, as has too often been the accusation. Conceding defeat proves that Venezuela is far from the dictatorship regularly described in news reports around the world–a majority popular vote in favor of the referendum should have been sufficient to prove the same thing but certainly would not have been in the eyes of the foreign press core and political pundits. Hopefully foreign governments and the international community will welcome future electoral outcomes–regardless of the results–as warmly as they did Sunday’s. If not, it forces the question of whether they are committed to democracy or merely to specific political outcomes.
Other Articles in the Forum:
Mark Weisbrot: Progressive Change in Venezuela
Sujatha Fernandes: What Does the ‘No’ Vote Mean?
Elisabeth Young-Bruehl: Behind the Student Movement’s Victory
Greg Grandin: Chavismo and Democracy