Venezuela Anticipates Constitutional Reform Vote

What will happen as campaigns for and
against constitutional reform in Venezuela heat
up? Political divisions may run deep, but by
sabotaging the referendum, those opposed to Chavez will hinder the
representative nature of democracy in Venezuela, undermining the system of
which they themselves are part.

By Megan Morrissey - VIO
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Over the next month,
Venezuelans from across the political spectrum will debate a package of
constitutional reforms put forth by the National Assembly.  This period of
political campaigns, which could include a series of nationally televised
debates between opposition and pro-government political parties moderated by the
National Electoral Council, will precede a national referendum scheduled for
December 2nd.  The referendum will give Venezuelans the final word on the
proposed constitutional changes.

The National
Assembly approved a final draft of 69 constitutional reforms on Friday November
2nd, a process which began last August when President Chavez submitted a
constitutional reform proposal to the lawmaking body.  The National Assembly
built on those reforms, adding changes to an additional 36 articles on top of
the initial 33 slated for reform.  The review process by the National Assembly
drew on citizen participation, as lawmakers received public input on the reforms
in open sessions called "street
parliaments."

Opposition groups
have made their demands known by calling on the National Electoral Council to
push back the referendum on the reforms until 2008 and to allow each
constitutional change to be voted on separately.  However, Venezuelan law
dictates that all reform proposals - whether they are submitted by the
President, lawmakers, or voters - must be put to a national referendum within 30
days of their completion. 

The CNE announced
last week that it will adhere to this law.  However, President Chavez conceded
to opposition groups by announcing Wednesday that the 69 proposed reforms may be
put to the public in blocks during the referendum, rather than as a single
up-or-down vote.  The National Electoral Council indicated
that, by law, one third of the proposed articles may be voted on separately. 
This will give Venezuelans more choice on the issues.

Debates within the National Assembly led
lawmakers to alter some of the initial reform proposals, most notably Article
337, which in its original language would have banned citizens' right to due
process during states of national emergency.  

Due process is now guaranteed under
Article 337, along with the right to life, freedom from torture, disappearance,
and silencing.  The right to information, however, will be suppressed during
national emergencies - a measure is consistent with past law in Venezuela that has been explained as
a legal reaction to media manipulation of events during the 2002 coup against
President Chavez.

Article 337 was initially the subject of
harsh criticism from opposition groups as well as by some political parties
represented in the National Assembly.  However, it is fully consistent with
international law, which recognizes the right of governments to limit certain
rights in extreme circumstances.  Similar clauses outlining the imposition of a
state of exception or a state of emergency are part of constitutional law in
many of the world's prominent democracies, including the US, Australia, Canada, France, Ireland, Spain and the UK.

Criticism has also arisen over Article 230,
a proposal to add one year to the current six-year presidential term and allow
for continual reelection.  Currently, presidents in Venezuela are subject to a two-term
limit.  Despite claims that the change is a bid by Chavez to remain in office
for life, the removal of term limits would not affect the basic system of
electoral competition in Venezuela. 

Changes to article 230 would not restrict
the right of citizens to run candidates against Chavez or his party.  Nor would
it do away with the ability of voters to petition for a national recall
referendum to oust the sitting president mid-term.  This provision, introduced
under the 1999 Constitution, was invoked in 2004.

On the issue of term limits, Secretary
General of the Organization of American States, Jose Miguel Insulza, pointed out
that President Chavez "is not saying anything about eliminating the parties in
opposition."  Insulza concluded, "I do not believe the
multi-party system is at stake in Venezuela."

Rather than concentrating power in the
executive, constitutional reforms in Venezuela would increase citizen
involvement in the system of participatory democracy.  A measure proposing to
lower the legal voting age by two years is based on the fact that 60-70% of
Venezuelan population is under 30 years of age.  

This is just one way in which citizen
participation in democracy would be enhanced.  Additionally, article 158 would
guarantee government funding to communal councils, neighborhood groups that
allow local knowledge to be put to use in identifying and solving local
problems.

From the point of
view of human rights, the proposed constitutional reforms
build on provisions in the 1999 Constitution recognizing the social and cultural
diversity of Venezuela.  Discrimination on the
basis of sexual orientation would be banned by Article 21.  A step toward
undoing centuries-old racial prejudices is evidenced in Article 100, which is
slated to recognize Afro-Venezuelan heritage alongside the Indigenous and
European influences as part of the nation's historical foundation.  Workers'
rights will be furthered by measures to shorten the work week to 36 hours and
extend social security benefits to the self-employed.   Additional progress on
women's rights is seen in a provision that requires political parties to promote
both female and male candidates.

As political campaigning for and against
the constitutional reforms begins, the government and its supporters are gearing
up to face challenges launched by the opposition.  In response to protests
taking place in Caracas during debates on the reform proposal
by lawmakers, President Chavez has stated, "Those who don't agree with the
project, have the right not to. They should prepare themselves for December 2
and try to convince people to vote against the reform." 

However, opposition groups in Venezuela seems set to encourage the
public to reject the national referendum altogether.  Statistics from the
polling firm Datanalysis suggest that those in favor of the reforms will vote in
the referendum, while those opposing the reforms plan to boycott the
referendum.  Voter abstention is a serious danger.  A similar boycott of
congressional elections by the political opposition in 2006 sought to discredit
the government, and led to the exclusion of opposition groups from the National
Assembly. 

Political divisions may run deep, but by
sabotaging the referendum, those opposed to Chavez will hinder the
representative nature of democracy in Venezuela, undermining the system of
which they themselves are part.

Megan Morrissey is a media analyst
at the Venezuela Information Office in Washington,
DC.

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