Venezuelans Deny Chávez Additional Authority

President Concedes Defeat in 51-49 Vote

Venezuela's President Hugo Ch¿vez casts his ballot at a Caracas polling station. He and his allies warned Venezuelans that opposing forces were plotting to destabilize the country.
Venezuela's President Hugo Ch¿vez casts his ballot at a Caracas polling station. He and his allies warned Venezuelans that opposing forces were plotting to destabilize the country. (By Fernando Llano -- Associated Press)
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.

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