There's no doubt that Hugo Chávez's first poll defeat
in Venezuela in nine years came as a shock. All yesterday afternoon,
private government exit polls predicted a 6-8 point lead for the 'yes'
camp in the country's second constitutional referendum in eight years.
At the Miraflores presidential palace in Caracas last night, the
mood of confidence and celebration gradually evaporated as the evening
wore on and the expected results failed to materialise. When the leader
of the nine-year-old "Bolivarian revolution"
appeared at 1.30am to concede the narrowest of victories to the
opposition in a dignified performance, the sense of confounded
expectation in the room - packed with ministers, activists and
journalists - was palpable.
But although last night's rejection was clearly a setback for Chávez
and his increasingly innovative attempt to create a new kind of social
alternative in the oil-rich Latin American state, it is very far from
being any kind of crushing defeat.
The constitutional reform - which would have allowed Chávez to stand
again as president after his second term expires in 2012, formalised
Venezuela as a socialist state, entrenched direct democracy and
introduced a 36-hour working week along with a string of other changes
- was knocked back by a slender margin: 50.7 per cent to 49.3 per cent.
'Por ahora,' as Chávez said in his early hours address: 'for now.'
A combination of fear about what the reforms might mean in practice,
over-confidence by the Chavista movement, a powerful and mendacious
propaganda campaign (including claims that children would be taken from
their parents and private homes nationalised), discontent over
continuing high levels of corruption and crime and a lack of clear
identification by many Chávez supporters with the reform all evidently
played their part.
Crucially, it was the abstention of three million voters who backed
Chávez in last year's presidential election that lost the vote, rather
than any significant advance by the opposition, which stayed stuck at
roughly the same level of support.
But the charismatic Venezuelan president remains firmly in power,
with a commanding level of public support and control of the national
assembly. With the significant exception of his right to stand in
future presidential elections, most of the other progressive social
reforms contained in yesterday's referendum package can be legislated
for without constitutional authorisation.
Perhaps most significantly for a better international understanding
of what is actually going on in Venezuela, yesterday's result must
surely discredit the canard that the country is somehow slipping into
authoritarian or even dictatorial rule. It is clearly doing nothing of
the sort. The referendum was a convincing display of democracy
in action - though doubtless if the margin of victory had been the
other way round, the US-backed opposition would have cried foul and
swathes of the western media would have accused Chávez of imposing a
I visited over half a dozen polling stations yesterday in the state
of Vargas north-east of Caracas and in the city itself and the process
seemed if anything more impressively run than in Britain - with
opposition monitors everywhere declaring themselves satisfied with the
transparency and integrity of the process.
Nevertheless, the risk must now be that voices within the Chavista
coalition calling for slower and less radical reforms will now be
strengthened as a result of the result.
The revolutionary process underway in Venezuela has delivered
remarkable social achievements, on the back of rising oil prices, in
health, education, poverty reduction, democratic participation,
socialisation of land and property and national independence. If those
advances were to be halted or reversed, it would be a loss whose
significance would go far beyond Venezuela's borders. But judging by
Chávez's comments and commitments made in the early hours of this
morning, there is no mood for turning back.