AFTER MORE than a year of resisting, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has finally accepted the democratic vote on his tenure in office provided for under his own constitution -- or at least that's what he says now. Last week the National Electoral Council, controlled by the president's loyalists, announced that a recall election would be held on Aug. 15, vindicating an opposition coalition that collected more than 3 million signatures on petitions and overcame an ugly government effort to invalidate most of them. That the movement finally succeeded is due in large part to the tireless efforts of former president Jimmy Carter and the secretary general of the Organization of American States, Cesar Gaviria, who insisted that the referendum process be respected and who intervened repeatedly to prevent Mr. Chavez from manipulating it. Their persistence and the opposition's own acceptance of the rule of law provide a ray of hope that Venezuela's long-running political crisis can be resolved by democratic and peaceful means.
Much could still go wrong, however -- and that may be Mr. Chavez's underlying intention. Already there have been some disturbing developments. The electoral council set the referendum date a week later than previously agreed, meaning that it is now within four days of a constitutional cutoff date after which the recall of Mr. Chavez would not trigger new elections. Officials also announced that the votes would be counted using untried electronic voting machines supplied by a consortium in which the government has a financial stake. Mr. Chavez's cronies have rejected proposals for independent monitoring of the machine tally and have suggested they will try to exclude observers from the Carter Center and the OAS. There are widespread reports that citizens who signed the recall petitions have been fired from government jobs or denied passports, and one of the organizers of the campaign is under investigation for the "crime" of receiving funding from the National Endowment for Democracy.
Mr. Chavez has ample motive to block a fair vote. His quasi-socialist, quasi-authoritarian rule has wrecked the Venezuelan economy and deprived him of most of the support he once had. Real per capita income declined 27 percent between 1998, when Mr. Chavez was first elected, and the end of last year, while unemployment rose from 14 percent to 18 percent and inflation soared to more than 30 percent. Most polls show that Mr. Chavez would lose a fair recall vote, though the opposition's lack of cohesion -- it groups labor unions, business associations and political parties united only by the president's assault on Venezuelan democracy -- means a follow-up presidential election would be up for grabs. It's not clear whether Mr. Chavez would be allowed to compete in a new election -- which helps explain why he recently pushed legislation through the Venezuelan congress that will allow him to pack the Supreme Court.
Venezuelans, and the outside world, can only expect that Mr. Chavez will do everything possible to stop or manipulate the upcoming vote. If he were to win fairly, the opposition would be obliged to accept his completing the two remaining years of his six-year term. But just getting to a fair vote will require continued and concerted pressure by the United States and Latin American governments. They should insist that the recall not be further delayed -- and that international monitors be given full authority to monitor and audit the balloting.