Chávez Chastened in Venezuela Vote

Rejection of Bid for More Power Shows Limits of Support

Opposition supporters celebrate the referendum outcome in Caracas.
Opposition supporters celebrate the referendum outcome in Caracas. "The vote does work here," one longtime activist said. (By Howard Yanes -- Associated Press)
By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, December 4, 2007

CARACAS, Venezuela, Dec. 3 -- A day after the first electoral loss of Hugo Chávez's presidency, the calculus of political affairs in Venezuela has fundamentally changed.

A once-demoralized, inept opposition won an important victory in Sunday's national referendum on constitutional changes, exposing weaknesses in Chávez's traditional base of support and slowing, at least for the moment, a process that would have eroded the country's system of checks and balances.

"The first thing we did was to defeat that giant leap of the president to his totalitarian project," Américo Martín, a longtime leftist leader here opposed to Chávez, said Monday. "That has an enormous significance. The second thing we did was to show that the vote does work here."

Analysts said the rejection of 69 constitutional amendments demonstrated that important segments of Chávez's base of support -- the poor and the working class -- are not willing to accept his vision wholesale, no matter how popular his social and economic programs. Even some of those who had ardently backed the president in the past had their doubts this time.

The president acknowledged the significance of his loss after midnight Monday, minutes after authorities announced that voters had rejected, 51 percent to 49 percent, amendments that would have permitted him to run for office indefinitely, control the country's finances and appoint governors. Chávez noted that 7.3 million of his countrymen had reelected him last December, but that his supporters didn't turn out in the same numbers this time.

"We had 3 million fewer votes than we received a year ago, imagine that," he said in an interview on state television.

Chávez has five more years in office and under the current constitution cannot be reelected. He could call for an elected constituent assembly to change the charter, though it could prove difficult for him to ensure such a body is full of his supporters.

During a predawn speech Monday in which he conceded the defeat of his proposal, Chávez said he thought the majority of Venezuelans still supported his government. But he said that the high abstention rate among his supporters should prompt deep reflection in his populist government, now ending its ninth year in power.

"They abstained because of doubts, fears, because there wasn't enough time or preparation to explain, perhaps," he said. "But there you find many political elements and statistics that we need to take into account to continue this battle."

Many voters said the proposed changes to the constitution would simply have given the president too much power. He already controls the National Assembly, the courts and most state and local governments. In one Caracas district, Carlos Sanabria, 44, said that he had voted for Chávez or his reforms in every election since 1998 but that he could not back him in the referendum.

"Everything is not for him, like he thinks," said Sanabria, a shoemaker. "We're not in Cuba -- this is Venezuela."

The opposition was deflated after dramatically losing a 2004 recall referendum and then last year's presidential election. But Sunday's outcome triggered euphoria among the university students, church leaders, politicians and even former Chávez allies who had risen up against the president's plan.

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