Constitutional Referendum in Venezuela
December 4, 2007
On December 2, Venezuelan voters rejected by a slim margin (51 to 49 percent, approximately) proposed changes to the Constitution of 1999 that, if approved, would have given substantially greater powers to President Hugo Chávez.
Q1: Why was this referendum important?
A1: The proposed changes would have affected nearly 20 percent of the articles of the 1999 Venezuelan Constitution. If approved, they would have allowed for limitless reelection of the president (in Chávez’s case, providing him the potential to remain in power indefinitely), would broaden still further the executive powers of the president at the expense of municipal and state government, would remove the autonomy of the Central Bank and bring it under executive control, would augment the powers of the executive to suspend basic rights during states of exception, would expand the size of the state sector of the economy, and would raise future requirements for holding referenda to recall public officials or to abrogate laws or presidential decrees. These changes would have provided President Chávez with still greater authorities than the broad powers he already enjoys, in effect cementing one-man rule in Venezuela.
Q2: Chávez has never lost a vote. Why this time?
A2: Venezuelan public opinion polls before the vote took place showed a growing trend toward disapproval of the changes. It was generally predicted that a large voter turnout would favor the opposition to Chávez’s proposed changes and that a smaller turnout would favor Chávez. This proved not to be the case. Rates of turnout/abstention proved to be similar to past referendum votes but with higher rates of turnout among Chávez opponents and lower participation among his core supporters. It is also appears that many voters who in the past supported Chávez or who are independent judged these changes to be too far-reaching and subsequently rejected them. Preliminary reporting shows that the “Yes” vote in favor of the changes won in 15 of Venezuela’s 23 states, but the “No” vote triumphed in all but one of the most populated and urbanized states, as well as in the Caracas capital district. The anti-Chávez position also gained ground in the states of Sucre and Aragua, where there has been a vocal falling out between President Chávez and the governors of those states—both formerly staunch Chávez supporters.
Q3: What does this mean for the opposition to Chávez in Venezuela?
A3: This could be a shot in the arm for the hitherto divided and ineffective opposition. Rather than boycotting the vote, as it had at times done in the past, the opposition was united in favor of the “No” position on the referendum. However, the triumph of the “No” does not necessarily reflect a resurgent political opposition to Chávez but rather the scant enthusiasm the constitutional changes generated among moderate chavistas and independents. There were other important factors in play, especially the prominent but largely nonpartisan mobilization of university students around the country against the proposed changes. The highly publicized criticisms of Chávez leveled by his former defense minister, retired General Raúl Baduel, and Chávez’s virulent response (accusing him of being a “traitor”) also weakened Chávez and probably broadened the “No” vote. The outcome of the referendum could catapult Baduel into an even more prominent political role.
Q4: What effect will this have on Chávez’s political agenda?
A4: Chávez has vowed to continue to work for approval of the proposed changes to the Constitution. If no further steps are taken, he is in essence a leader in his final term in office, albeit with five years remaining, immense executive power, and extraordinary economic resources at his disposal. It remains to be seen what effect this defeat will have on his plan of constructing “socialism” in Venezuela.
Q5: How will this affect Chávez’s international standing?
A5: Defeat in the referendum not only sidetracks Chávez’s political agenda in Venezuela but also weakens his international image, already damaged by his recent clash with Spain and his history of intemperate remarks about regional leaders in the Americas. That Venezuelans voted down his proposal to allow for indefinite reelection will not be lost on international public opinion. It is unlikely, however, that Chávez will back away from his vigorous international efforts to gain influence and promote the “Bolivarian revolution” in other parts of the hemisphere.
Q6: What about relations with the United States?
A6: Relations between the United States and Venezuela remain poor, despite the mutually beneficial and important energy relationship. The result of the referendum in and of itself will not have any bearing on that relationship. How Chávez reacts to the defeat of his proposed constitutional changes could, however, influence the direction the bilateral relationship might take, as well as Venezuela’s relations with other democracies.
Peter DeShazo is director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
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© 2007 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.