Warning: to read the rest of this article you need to understand that the current Chavez administration cannot relinquish power in a democratic way because if the Venezuelan judicial system were to regain its independence after Chavez departure dozens and dozens of high ranking chavistas, including Chavez himself, would find their way to lengthy trials, prison and even exile. If you do not understand this reality of chavismo, or do not agree with this previous sentence then save yourself time and move to another blog or web page which might satisfy better your interests.
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What is at stake in the February referendum
In 2007 Chavez failed to push a constitutional reform that would have included two things dear to him: reelection as many times as he wished for and more power for his office to allow him to secure a victory in any future election, mostly by creating a client system where too many people depend on the good will of the leader for their livelihood.
Through 2008 Chavez worked very hard at ensuring a resounding success on the regional election to sustain an excuse at pushing again in one way or the other a reelection bid. Unfortunately for Chavez in spite of a huge state investment in his campaign the result was not the resounding victory he hoped for, including in fact important symbolic defeats such as Caracas. The coming world crisis came in the end of the electoral process and changed all the parameters Chavez was working with. Now, previewing that by the second half of 2009 the coming crisis will dent his popularity in a durable way Chavez decided to pass over a weak victory and roll the dice while he still disposes of enough disposable income to buy votes. Thus the eternal reelection proposal that has been rushed through parliament and the electoral council violating as many laws and constitutional rights as one can come up with in such matters. A vote is set for February 15 even though so far polls are rather negative for chavismo.
Does it really matter?
In the end it really does not matter much what the result is on February 15. Whether Chavez wins or not he will not be able to avoid an economic crisis that might be his undoing as he will not be able to deliver anymore. The opposition to Chavez cannot do much today since Chavez controls all organizations of the state. But disenchanted chavistas that suddenly will stop receiving many of the unsustainable benefits that they have gone used to receive will be the ones that will give Chavez grief and probably force him to resign before the end. Because the drama of chavismo is that the nature of its system makes it impossible for Chavez to undertake the necessary measures to change what needs to be changed in his regime and precludes the competent people that could help him to join as no self respecting professional or technician or experienced economist or scientist will accept to work for a guy that treats you like a lowly servant to his whims. He is alone today, surrounded by a bunch of dishonest sycophants (redundancy intended) and such a system only works when money flows in abundantly.
Of course if he loses that could create the illusion that chavismo might be at a close end. And it would be a grievous mistake to make such an assumption. Chavismo would still have enough resources to try out a Putin solution where a stand in would be put into place until a way is found to bring back Chavez. Even through a new constitution if needed. Thus as it has been the case since 2004, we will vote once again and once again nothing will be solved while unrest, division and violence remain our lot.
How will Chavez organize his campaign
All the abuses committed in previous elections are already present (financial abuses, forcing public employees, threats, insults and what not). But there are major differences this time. The first thing to be noted is that the process to vote the amendment so it can be submitted to popular vote has been rushed and violates the current constitution that does not allow for a rejected constitutional change to come back to the voters for a few years. The electoral board who has the obligation to monitor such things has been much more an accomplice than an impartial umpire. This already betrays a determination of Chavez to get his reelection at any cost.
The first confirmation of this is the astounding change in Chavez who reserved eternal election only for Chavez. Reading negative polls he decided to give some incentive to his people to support him more vigorously by extending eternal reelection to all, something he opposed strongly until last December. This of course would result in a caste of people working together to retain power forever by blocking any possibility for an opposition to develop, amen for lower ranking chavistas needing to wait for death to provide openings. I need only to point out that the opposition executive jobs elected last November have been stripped of many of their responsibilities, have been threatened, have seen their resources cut down, and now are even violently attacked by what can only be called fascist red shirts led by such violent individuals as Lina Ron or the La Piedrita group. This extension of reelection potential amazingly yielded a side effect: now there is a need to modify 5 articles which now makes the initial "amendment" into a true constitutional reform, thus further violating the constitution.
But there is a much worrying aspect to this campaign: the increasing repressive nature of the regime which seems to have arrived to stay. I will just mention two cases. First the scandalous one when Chavez asks publicly for the student protest to be repressed, including words on tear gas "Use gas, and of the strong type". But I will weigh longer on the now avowed goal of the regime to leave the discourse of civilized world.
A few days ago we learned that the High Court of Venezuela (TSJ) will not recognize the decision of an International Court that criticized an earlier TSJ decision. Even though Venezuela has subscribed the treaties that made the decision of certain international courts mandatory now the TSJ has basically asked the government to protest the OAS international judicial system as a prelude to either kill its meaning or eventually lead Venezuela out of the OAS. And when you hear Chavez this week end starting to attack Obama even though in a recent visit Lula asked Chavez to find ways to deal with the incoming US administration, you just know that Chavez is readying himself to go at it alone in the world, Cuban style if needed, as long as it ensures him retaining office. If repression is needed inside Venezuela he does not want people to watch or condemn him outside by effecting international sanctions.
Thus the tone of the current campaign: a violent blackmail to the country. Either we cave in to Chavez wishes or he will punish us by promoting violence and the repression that follows. And that is how the campaign is unfolding, increasing violence, no debate whatsoever. Then again, what is there to debate? That Chavez current term ends AFTER Obama completes his first term? Really, even for his own supporters Chavez cannot come up with potential arguments.
Electoral cheating is this time a very serious risk. It has already started big time as the weigh of the state is used more than ever to create pressure, in particular on public employees who are demanded to show support and show enthusiasm for the proposal of an eternal Chavez. It continues by labeling what are normal electoral activities of the opposition as "conspiracy". It is stressed by the increasing repression that we see on recent protests or the sectarian nature where the only citizens that matter do vote for Chavez, as the newly elected officials are finding out the hard way. From there it is easy to imagine that comes February 15 chavismo will not recognize an unfavorable result. Chavez has already hinted at it by saying that the opposition will cheat, something that is simply materially impossible with the Venezuelan electoral system today where only chavismo could cheat if it wanted to. Such a gratuitous accusation only betrays what Chavez is already considering doing next month. He, and he alone, as the ability to generate violence and electoral fraud.
Does the opposition have a chance to stop Chavez?
For the opposition the stakes are high. If Chavez wins one of the consequences is that it will be much more difficult to unseat his regime in a democratic way. With a Chavez controlling all the institutions of the state and access to all the finances of the state to use in any of his campaigns electoral, control and blackmail will be easier for him once people do not see an end to his rule. In addition the newly repressive actions will render future campaigns more hazardous than what they already are.
But the opposition does have some advantages. The latest actions of Chavez might be rallying some of his base but it is doubtful that they will gain him new voters. In fact the question is if the motivated electoral base will be enough to compensate those who are getting more and more nervous about their man and who this time might be willing to cast the NO vote that they did not dare to cast in 2007.
I personally think at this point that the opposition will win, not becasue the opposition will drive a convincing campaign (though it is not a bad one so far) but because Chavez is simply becoming every day more and more scary. All in Venezuela know exactly what is at stake, all know that the eternal reelection is not a need of the country, just a need of Chavez ego. Probably most votes are decided, what remains to be decided is whether to vote. Here the strategy is to bring out the vote and for this chavismo is counting on the CNE who surprisingly extended voting time by two hours while this is an easy election to manage. The only reason is for chavismo to get more time to drag its voters to voting stations depending on how the turnout looks like at noon time. Indeed, by noon chavismo will know how its electorate is responding whereas the opposition is deprived of much information.
But the opposition has not it easy in spite of Chavez errors. It needs to confront the possibility of electoral cheating and this can only be ensured by a large turnout in favor of the NO and by staffing all voting centers to make sure that votes are counted as they should be counted. After the exhausting regional election campaign it is still unclear whether the opposition has the strength and energy for the challenge.
And increasingly nervous Chavez is revealing his true self: a fascist that wants to remain in office forever. He simply cannot hide it anymore. And thus it is now that the is becoming dangerous as the violence option is now one he must play with. What is of more concern is how the result will exacerbate his narcisto-fascist character. February 15 can be the date when we get a chance to begin the long process of recovering our lost democracy. Or it could become the date when political violence became routine in Venezuela as a state policy to control the opposition.
Still, we can take comfort in the knowledge that Chavez current violence is a direct product of his very justified fear of losing on February 15th.