The results of the constitutional reform referendum in Venezuela came in late on the night of Sunday, December 2, with the defeat of the proposal put forth by President Hugo Chávez and the National Assembly. The marginal success of the no vote–50.7 percent compared with 49.3 percent who voted in favor of the reforms–led the opposition to declare the results a triumph against dictatorship. Chávez, who conceded defeat on Sunday night, argued that it was only a temporary setback for the proposed reforms, adding that with more mobilization of voters the reforms could have passed.
But beyond the opposition’s facile rhetoric and Chávez’s optimism, what is the significance of the no vote? After Chávez won victories by such large margins in the recall referendum of August 2004 and the subsequent election in December 2006, how can we account for the defeat of the recent referendum? And what do these results mean for the future of Chávez and the Bolivarian project?
As various observers have pointed out, the results of the referendum do not signify a large defection of Chávez supporters to the opposition, as the opposition increased its number of votes in the referendum by fewer than 100,000 since last year’s elections. The 2.8 million votes that were lost by Chavismo in the referendum were due to abstention. Abstention has plagued local and municipal elections, as well as National Assembly elections, leading some to conclude that when Chávez’s immediate presidential status is not at risk, people are less likely to participate. There is some validity to this claim, but in this case the roots of the abstention are deeper.
One of the most controversial aspects of the reforms was the increased powers granted to the presidency–especially the unlimited number of times the president could be re-elected and the extension of the presidential term from six to seven years. The opposition and foreign observers made erroneous claims that this would enable Chávez to become a “dictator for life,” when in fact he would still be required to stand for office periodically.
Chávez is a figure with organic ties to social movements in the country, and he has been re-elected and defended because he has created important spaces for marginalized sectors and popular movements to be heard. His presence as a leader has politicized large sections of the population and given new life to social activism.
But there has also been a tendency among official sectors to exaggerate the centrality of Chávez to the social process unfolding in Venezuela. His presidency is only one moment in a long historical trajectory of progressive social movements. These movements, crucial allies of Chávez, have for some time expressed concerns about growing power at the top. Perhaps, in the referendum, Chávez misjudged the degree to which even his supporters would want to see him ruling until 2050.
Another aspect of the reform proposals that caused concern among some Chávez supporters was the fact that they were decided by a small group of representatives in the National Assembly, rather than being debated in a larger and more inclusive decision-making body such as the Constituent Assembly.
A key coalition of social movements campaigning for the reforms, including the National Association of Free and Alternative Community Media (ANMCLA), the National Peasant Front Ezequiel Zamora, the Urban Land Committees (CTU), the Network of Afro-Venezuelans and the Front of Co-managed and Occupied Factories, among others, pledged their support for the proposed reforms in a document titled “In the Campaign for ‘Yes.'” However, the coalition’s document criticized the manner in which the reforms had been decided: “between four walls and without giving space to the people as the primary constituent.” Perhaps if these important social movement actors had been given the opportunity to contribute to the drafting of the reforms, they would have had more of a sense of ownership over the proposal that was ultimately voted on.
Finally, the two slates of constitutional reforms that were put to the vote were a mixed bag, requiring time to be debated by the public. In addition to the changes to electoral law, they included policies promoting social inclusion, state-led development models, workers’ rights, politico-territorial reorganization and the removal of the right to information in times of emergency. Not everyone agreed on all of these clauses.
Yet in place of debate and grassroots mobilization, the official campaign for the yes vote was one that the social movements coalition described in its document as “dull, cold, cliched, empty of content (Si! Si! Asi! Asi!), that promotes the demobilization and apathy of the people.” As an example of this vacuousness, one campaign slogan from the Chávez side was “Requirements to vote ‘No’: Be brutish, ignorant at heart, animal by conviction, and ‘No’ love your nation. Vote ‘Yes.'” While slogans from the opposition were equally or more inane, it seems that the Chavistas lost an important opportunity to truly educate people about the reforms and engage them to become agents in their implementation.
The loss of the referendum is not a make-or-break moment for Chávez and his supporters. It may temporarily revive a flagging opposition, but the country does not face the immediate threat of reactionary and possibly retaliatory forces coming back to power, as it did during the recall referendum and the 2006 election.
Nevertheless, this is a crucial moment of reckoning for the Bolivarian leadership. Chávez has showed grace and dignity in conceding defeat. Now a window exists to learn from the mistakes of the referendum. It is an opportunity to reorient the course of the revolution away from determining how to keep Chávez in power indefinitely and proposing reforms from above, and toward promoting alternative and local sources of leadership and facilitating a plural public debate about the future of socialism.
Other Articles in the Forum:
Mark Weisbrot: Progressive Change in Venezuela
Chesa Boudin: A Silver Lining for the Bolivarian Revolution
Elisabeth Young-Bruehl: Behind the Student Movement’s Victory
Greg Grandin: Chavismo and Democracy