Hugo Chavez’s election in 1998, the politics in Venezuela have been the
most active and engaging in the world, with the radical new direction
of the country fiercely contested. On Sunday, a large section of
Chavez’s supporters chose to abstain from voting on a broad array of
proposed constitutional reforms, leaving them unapproved and raising
the very real, and honest question: Was it his intention to lose all
Only one year
ago, Chavez was decisively reelected with a record 63% of the vote and
only a quarter of the electorate abstaining. There have since been a
handful of controversies, any of which could potentially have alienated
a small minority of his support. However, Sunday’s vote was lost
through the abstention of a crucial segment that still supports Chavez,
yet wasn’t ready for radical landscape changes in order to bring about
full-blown “21st century Socialism”.
has blamed this mass abstencion on “tiredness” resulting from excessive
rhetoric and not enough action. This can’t be the case, as those who
abstained must represent the more conservative, moderate wing of ‘Chavismo’.
A more realistic argument is that the opposition’s scare tactics and
disinformation made this sector wary of certain individual proposals.
If there had been a significant ‘NO’ vote over and above the
opposition’s known electoral capacity, perhaps this would ring true,
but there was not; and in any case, propaganda from the ‘other side’ is
rarely taken seriously. The mass abstention suggests moderate ‘Chavistas’ were simply behaving rationally under the odd circumstances of the entire affair.
reforms were, as Chavez quickly admitted, too early and too ambitious.
Most commentators would go further and say they demanded far too much
consideration in too short a space of time. Just months into Chavez’s
final six-year term, an initial reform package of 33 proposals quickly
ballooned into a total of 69. They represented an Aladdin’s Cave
containing everything Chavez and his more radical support could have
wished for. But moderates saw that few, if any, of the important
proposals were urgent, that most simply did not require constitutional
status, and that the whole package was desperately overreaching and
Chavez is a savvy
character, and it is rather implausible that he could have compromised
this electoral contest (and contradicted his own style of governance)
through such extreme miscalculation or greed. To submit this raft of
significant changes to a public vote in the space of a little more than
a month seems out of step with the modus operandi of a leader
who has been the epitome of patience itself, and who knows the key to
long-term success is consistently rising public approval. Of course
Chavez’s political capital was high, but he is well aware that the
revolution cannot progress in earnest with highly visible drops in
It would have
been straightforward to advise Chavez on exactly how to achieve maximum
votes: Streamline the reform package into a tidy mix of social
benefits, executive and popular power; try to avoid anything that is
not strictly necessary, that can be achieved by other means, or that
gives the opposition an opportunity to scare the electorate. Float the
ideas around for a few months before the campaign begins some time after
the Christmas period. Make sure there are no international engagements
during the campaign and be sure to participate in public debates.
importantly, Chavez would have been duly advised to campaign in the
same non-controversial fashion that had won him reelection last year.
Curiously, he insisted on utilising a strange form of blackmail by
asserting any ‘NO’ votes would be against him personally, even for George
W. Bush. That meant if you didn’t want to vote ‘YES’, you’d better
abstain – otherwise you’re an imperialist/oligarchical lackey.
Surprise, surprise: abstention jumped from 25% in last December’s
general election to almost 45%, with the increase almost exclusively
comprising Chavez voters. In retrospect, was this ‘blackmail’ really
designed to secure the ‘YES’ vote, or to minimise the ‘NO’ vote?
Despite repeated appeals against abstention, this must have only served
to increase it.
If a police
detective was investigating the conspiracy theory of a purposefully
lost election (let us not speculate that the election result could have
been manipulated in favour of the opposition, despite the agonising
wait after the polls had closed!), the motives, means and opportunity
all fit like gloves – but especially the motives. Tellingly, the only
alternative explanation for such a stunning loss is gross and
uncharacteristic misjudgment, not to mention elementary errors of
political campaigning. Most people would think Chavez has enough
experience to know better.
To attempt to drive this truckload of reforms through en masse
with, say, 55% of the vote, which is what many were expecting and what
could theoretically have been achieved, would only have caused
increased anger and civil strife in the country. At this important
stage of the revolution, Chavez’s ‘loss’ has in fact done the complete
opposite, swiftly ensuring peace and stability in Venezuela by
effectively tranquilizing an opposition student movement that was close
to boiling point. Their most frequent message was that they “just
wanted peace”, and now they have it. On the other hand, Chavez has lost
nothing and gained everything.
It now bodes
extremely well for his international image in particular. Aside from
quelling all dictator/fraud charges for the foreseeable future, his
reputation as a dignified democrat and conciliatory statesman has
increased tenfold, with fauning praise from most regional leaders.
Meanwhile, the basic manifesto for his current term has been
articulated in full, thereby initiating an informal process of debate
that will continue over months if not years. Though the reform
proposals were hardly grassroots choices, the method and style of the
entire process gave an important lesson to the population, who are
presumably now expected to make use of their constitutional power to
initiate their own proposals (having been given enough ideas).
Of course Chavez
wants to deepen the revolution, and it should be emphasised that nearly
half of all voters were ready to grasp “21st century Socialism” with
both hands. However, to conclusively legitimise the journey onwards,
the essential ‘moderate wing’ needs to be picked up, or “taken on
board”, as Chavez said himself during a call-in to state TV the day
after the vote. What better way to identify and address this moderate
wing than to set up an electoral test which the moderates are not going
to approve? Chavez now knows exactly how many remain to be convinced of
an all-out socialist project, and presumably even who they are and
where they live.
Chavez is an
outstanding statesman with a powerful ability to build consensus for
his ideas and policies, and what he proposes to achieve is no secret:
in thousands of hours of media appearances his visions of social
justice, true popular power and a diversified economy have been well
explained. Clearly not all have been sufficiently persuaded, but the
most important step with which to enable an systematic process of
persuasion has now been achieved through losing this election. The
crucial signs are that Chavez’s base of opposition has not expanded,
and those sympathetic to Chavez remain open to further persuasion.
We can now be
sure that Chavez’s supporters are far from mindless sheep. Those that
voted ‘YES’ were fully informed and ready to go ahead with the reforms.
We can assume they are willing to dispose of capitalism and try a
different experiment. Meanwhile, those that abstained were of
sufficiently firm disposition to disassociate the reforms from Chavez,
in spite of his contrary efforts, and thus made a neutral decision
based on their perceived benefits/potential pitfalls in relation to the
current state of Venezuelan society.
Venezuela is ripe
for socialism, but to be a truly demonstrative international example,
slim majority support will not suffice. “21st century socialism” may be
based on popular power, but even that cannot be achieved without
democratic consent. In fact, increasing executive power will be
necessary in order to overturn the politics, economy and society into a
revolutionary landscape of real grassroots decision-making. In the
present society, overflowing with disposable income and increasingly
catered for by rapidly expanding social missions and the largest oil
reserves on the planet, moderates are liable to ask: How much better
can it really get? Do we need to change a bunch of other things? Might
that not be a risk?
The sector of
Chavez’s support that has yet to acknowledge the inherent problems with
the capitalist model, or alternatively the inherent benefits of
socialism, might well overlap neatly with the sector that abstained in
this constitutional reform vote. Perhaps they need to be convinced of
the need for increased executive power and the democratic/other
benefits of eliminating presidential limits. Whatever their concerns,
we know that Chavez’s excessive rhetoric has not been sufficient to
alleviate them – the answer now appears to be diversified means of
education targeted directly at the ‘uncertain moderates’, and just as
importantly, demonstration by example.
overriding failure of the reforms was not any individual proposals but
the general intensity, scope and pressure of the package in the given
circumstances. Chavez still has decree power for the next six months at
least, and will surely use it to effect the most urgent proposals. The
opposition still has the constitutional power to strike down any
legislation if the electoral force is behind them, though the election
results show that they remain a limited minority. Practically all ‘NO’
votes came from the limited block of stridently anti-Chavez,
pro-capitalist views which may represent only a third of the entire
opposition feels empowered, it will prove to be an illusory experience
and the position of the socialist movement with five years of Chavez’s
provisionally final term remaining is even stronger than before. In the
ambience of reduced attacks from both domestic and international
opposition and perhaps the invaluable extermination of the ‘dictator’
charge once and for all, most of the intended advances will inevitably
be achieved with or without constitutional imperative (imagine a
successful popular initiative to eliminate presidential term limits),
and positive results will almost certainly ensure the big hullabalooza:
Chavez’s reelection in 2012. “For now”, Chavez says, Venezuelans have
to “mature, and continue constructing our socialism”.
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