By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, December 3, 2007
CARACAS, Venezuela, Dec. 3 -- Venezuelan voters delivered a stinging defeat to President Hugo Chávez on Sunday, blocking proposed constitutional changes that would have given him political supremacy and accelerated the transformation of this oil-rich country into a socialist state.
Hours after the final ballots were cast, the National Electoral Council announced at 1:15 a.m. local time Monday that voters, by a margin of 51 to 49 percent, had rejected 69 reforms to the 1999 constitution. The modifications would have permitted the president to stand for reelection indefinitely, appoint governors to provinces he would create and control Venezuela's sizable foreign reserves.
Chávez immediately went on national television and conceded before a roomful of government allies and other supporters. "I thank you and I congratulate you," Chávez said calmly, directing his comments to his foes. "I recognize the decision a people have made." Chávez admitted, though, that he had found himself in a quandary on Sunday night as votes were being tallied, because the vote was so close. But he said that with nearly 90 percent of 9 million ballots counted, it became clear that his opponents' victory was irreversible. "I came out of the dilemma," he said, "and I am calm."
The victory for the "No" vote represents the first electoral setback for Chávez, 53, a former lieutenant colonel who won the presidency in a 1998 landslide and, until now, had trounced his opponents in one referendum and presidential election after another. Political analysts had said last week that the populist leader had lost standing this year after implementing unpopular policies, such as canceling a television station's broadcast license and displaying increasingly erratic behavior in verbal spats with foreign leaders.
Chávez had campaigned furiously in recent days after polls showed that Venezuelans would reject the reforms. But he faced an eclectic and widespread opposition that included university students, Roman Catholic leaders and human rights groups.
Particularly damaging to the government was the defection of several longtime allies, including the former defense minister, Raúl Baduel, and the head of an influential, pro-Chávez party, Ismael García. Pollsters said that gave the "No" vote undeniable momentum late last month.
"People who have been with Chávez do not support the reform," said Elixio Fusil, who lives in a pro-Chávez district in western Caracas and voted against the reforms. "He wants a blank check, and that's impossible. We're not stupid like he thinks. It's that simple. There are conscious, thinking people here, too."
The referendum capped a whirlwind year for Chávez, who won a second six-year term with 63 percent of the vote last December and promptly announced he would radicalize what he calls his Bolivarian revolution. He nationalized electric and telephone utilities, wrested the huge oil sector from ExxonMobil and other corporations, cancelled the concession for RCTV, a stridently anti-government station, and oversaw an expanding state presence in the economy.
Chávez also moved on his constitutional changes, announcing in a speech in January that he would seek an amendment that would permit him to run for office indefinitely. On a late-night talk show on state television in recent days, he said he needed more time to consolidate broad socioeconomic changes in Venezuela.
"Four or five years are not enough," he said. "I've just done the basic course."
Venezuelan voters, though, did not want to give Chávez more time beyond the five years he has left on his six-year term.
"Today I think people are voting for democracy, voting for balance, for a process of checks and balances," said Oscar Arnal, an international studies professor who voted against the reforms.
After voting against the proposals, Vanesa Serfaty, a teacher, said, "I don't like indefinite reelection. A person cannot be in power so much time. Obviously, they get obsessed with that power."
The reforms that were particularly controversial -- and troubling to many Venezuelans -- included articles lengthening the presidential term from six to seven years, granting the president control of the Central Bank, allowing the government to detain citizens without charge in a state of emergency, and declaring that Venezuela's system is based on "socialist, anti-imperialist principles."
The president sweetened the reforms by proposing a pension fund for informal workers, such as street vendors, shortening the workday, promoting neighborhood councils and lowering the minimum voting age from 18 to 16.
The days leading up to the election were tense, with Chávez and his allies commandeering state television to warn that opposing forces were plotting a destabilization campaign, though little proof was offered. The rhetoric from government officials, coupled with sharp rebukes by opposition leaders, further polarized the country and generated concerns that the loser would claim fraud and fail to concede.
Though dozens of international observation groups were on hand, the government did not invite large and experienced monitors from the Organization of American States and the European Union, both of which have certified elections here in the past.
In his campaign, which was covered extensively by a growing state media apparatus, Chávez rarely brought up the controversial reforms, and instead characterized the vote as a plebiscite on his rule. He also said voting against the reforms would benefit the Bush administration, which in 2002 offered tacit support for a failed coup launched against him.
"Whoever votes 'Yes' is voting for Chávez, and whoever votes 'No' is voting for George W. Bush, president of the United States," Chávez told supporters at a huge pro-government rally in Caracas on Friday.
He said that voting for the reforms would ensure that more power would be redirected to the people while hastening Venezuela's path toward what he calls 21st-Century Socialism. The president characterized himself as the leader who could complete the transformation, and on Friday he said he would stay in office long past the expiration of his current term, which ends in 2013.
"If God gives me life and help," he said, as a multitude of supporters cheered, "I will be at the head of the government until 2050." He would then be 95.
As in past elections, voters in neighborhoods traditionally aligned with the government were awakened by bugles and fireworks before dawn. Heavy turnout -- as in a 2004 recall referendum and last December's presidential election, when abstention dropped below 30 percent -- did not materialize. In the poor districts where his political machine has easily generated support in the past, the lack of voters at polling stations was startling. Chávez acknowledged the abstention, saying it hurt his cause. "Abstention defeated us," he said. "It's a lesson for us."
Still, the government was banking on the good will Chávez had built through the years with his trademark social programs, which had helped him create a nearly impenetrable political base. On Sunday morning, in one hilltop neighborhood in the vast Catia district of western Caracas, a handful of voters said they had rewarded Chávez for his commitment to the poor.
"Here the majority of the Venezuelan people are in favor of 'Yes,' because we believe that President Hugo Rafael Chávez Frías is the hope of the poor people, of the oppressed people," said Luis Sierra, a mechanic.
But clearly things had changed -- and not everyone felt the same, even in the same poor barrio.
Wilfredo Vivas, 45, a cabbie, said aspects of the reforms seemed designed to benefit Chávez's administration and his allies. Among the troubling alterations, he said, was one under which Chávez could name governors and mayors.
"He says he gives more power to the people, but in that article I see that he's taken power away from the people," Vivas said. "Now we won't elect mayors or governors, but he names them."