Mérida, December 5th, 2008 (Venezuelanalysis.com) — Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez proclaimed Friday night that a national referendum on whether to amend the national constitution to abolish presidential term limits should take place no later than February of next year.
“Don’t take off your campaign boots,” Chávez told his supporters, who have been enveloped in regional and local election campaigns for several months.
“I don’t want to make the new governors, who have so much to do already, take on a year-long campaign [for the amendment], if we are going to do this let’s do it now,” he said.
Friday night, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) decided that it will introduce the referendum through the National Assembly (AN), as opposed to gathering petition signatures from 15% of registered voters.
Both methods of proposing a constitutional amendment are valid according to Article 340 of the Venezuelan constitution, which was created by an elected constituent assembly and approved in a national vote in 1999, Chávez’s first year as president.
The constitution requires one third of the AN sign on to a preliminary amendment proposal, and then a simple majority of the assembly must vote to bring it to a national referendum.
Chávez supporters have held the vast majority of AN seats since opposition parties boycotted the legislative elections in 2005, so the referendum appears to have few obstacles. AN President Cilia Flores said 140 PSUV legislators would be involved in the initiative, nearly triple the required 50.
After the referendum is approved, National Electoral Council (CNE), the independent institution that manages Venezuelan elections, will have thirty days to organize the national vote, in which the amendment must receive a simple majority to be approved.
CNE Vice President Yaneth Hernández confirmed this week that organizing a national referendum by February is logistically viable.
CNE President Tibisay Lucena said the constitutionality of the amendment proposal will be thoroughly scrutinized before receiving the CNE’s approval.
Currently, Article 230 of the Venezuelan constitution says that the presidential term is six years, and the president can be re-elected once for an immediate second term.
“If this article remains as it is, then I will govern for four more years, and I will hand over the government in [early] 2013,” said Chávez, who was elected to his second term in 2006.
The proposed amendment would maintain the six year presidential term, but remove the two-term limit on how many times the president can hold office, according to the Federation of Bolivarian Lawyers (FBA).
“I will be here as long as God wills and the people command,” Chávez stated Thursday.
Opposition leaders and newspapers have harshly criticize the initiative, saying Venezuelans already rejected Chávez’s bid to be “president for life” by voting down the Chávez-led constitutional reform proposal, which included the abolition of presidential term limits and modifications to 68 other articles, by a slim margin last year.
Pro-Chávez legislators in the National Assembly (AN) have responded by explaining that the constitution allows for three ways of changing the constitution, including an amendment to a single article, a reform that includes several articles, or a complete re-writing of the constitution, which requires an elected constituent assembly of the people.
“The complicated constitutional reform proposal that was not approved last year cannot be presented again during this term, but what we are doing now is a simple amendment, not a reform,” Chavez explained.
Chávez’s supporters have also commented that having the referendum sooner will limit the opposition’s ability to manipulate public opinion, which it did during the constitutional reform referendum by distributing false, sensationalized copies of the reform proposals and placing false advertisements in the private media.
Yon Goicoechea, an anti-Chávez student leader who received a $500,000 award from the Washington, D.C.-based Cato Institute for his activism against the constitutional reform last year, called for full scale student opposition to the amendment this week.
While the vast majority of Chávez’s supporters appear to applaud the amendment, a few critical voices within the Bolivarian movement have expressed themselves. For example, Vladimir Villegas, a former president of the state television station and vice-minister of foreign affairs during Chávez’s presidency, questioned the amendment proposal in an interview with the news site noticias24.com.
“What is the objective, that Chavez stays in power or that the [revolutionary] process is maintained? Wouldn’t it be a great success if the process continued without its supreme leader?” said Villegas.
“A leader who is promoting a political project should work so that this project endures, beyond his own management,” Villegas continued. “With this rhetoric that everyone who criticizes is a traitor or counter-revolutionary, the president will become more and more alone,” Villegas concluded.