Monday, August 25, 2003

Excellent article from The Economist
Sunday 24, August 2003

It is always nice to find an article from the foreign press that gets all its facts right. On August 21 The Economist published the following article that I allow myself to paste below. No commentaries are needed. Who knows, maybe someone at The Economist is reading this blog :-)

Venezuela's president
Recalling the revolution
Aug 21st 2003 | CARACAS

California comes to Caracas
Not if Hugo Chavez has his way

NEARLY five years ago, Venezuelans elected as their president a former army officer best known for having led a failed coup in 1992. After 20 years of social and economic decline under a flawed two-party system, even those who had not voted for him were enthusiastic about Hugo Chavez's “Bolivarian revolution” (named for South America's independence hero). Having rewritten the constitution, he was re-elected, for a six-year term, in 2000. Even today he has a respectable 34% popularity rating. But under Mr Chavez, decline has accelerated. Polls show that two out of three Venezuelans now abhor the president, seeing him as an incompetent would-be dictator who must depart. As in California, they now trust in a recall referendum to achieve this.

Mr Chavez included this device in the new constitution, proudly defending it as “participatory democracy”. Once past his term's mid-point (which fell on August 19th), he must face a referendum if 20% of the electorate (2.4m voters) call for one. On August 20th, tens of thousands of opposition supporters gathered to hand over to the electoral authority what they say are 3.2m valid signatures. So far, so clear.

But that is not the whole story. Mr Chavez has suddenly gone cold towards this aspect of participatory democracy. He is doing his best to ensure that the vote is never held. The National Electoral Council (CNE), which must organise the referendum, is not functioning: its members' terms have expired and the National Assembly has failed to name new ones. The supreme court, perhaps irregularly, has said it will do so instead. But one side or the other, or maybe both, seems bound to question its neutrality.

The government will be helped by the lack of clear rules. Nobody knows for certain what constitutes a valid signature, nor whether a fresh petition can be presented if the first one is ruled invalid, nor even whether the president could stand again if voted out. Mr Chavez and his followers will challenge the process every step of the way. If the referendum does take place, the opposition must obtain more than 3.7m votes to oust Mr Chavez, the number he won in 2000. That could be tricky if the chavistas turn to violence on polling day.

It was their conviction that Mr Chavez would thwart a referendum that led the opposition to try to topple the president by force, first in a failed coup last year and then with a two-month general strike. Such measures were justified, it said, because Mr Chavez had under his thumb such supposedly independent institutions as parliament, the courts, the CNE and watchdogs such as the public prosecutor.

But having fallen out last year with Luis Miquilena, his former political fixer, the president is finding that he no longer exerts unchallenged sway over these institutions. His parliamentary majority is down to four, the supreme court is split in half and even the public prosecutor—his former vice-president—sometimes seems to contradict the government line. Outsiders will watch closely too: in May the Organisation of American States brokered an agreement that would seem to commit Mr Chavez to the referendum.

Most opposition supporters, and some moderate chavistas too, now think that the recall referendum is the best way out of Venezuela's agony. Even the sceptics believe it should be pursued, if only to prove that the president is no democrat. The next few months will provide the answer.

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