Saturday, December 01, 2007

The WSJ editorial today

The Wall street journal chimes in (hat tip AM). The title leaves nothing to the imagination. The whole article below since it is subscribers only.

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Chávez's Electoral Coup
December 1, 2007

Political coups don't always wear khaki. Sometimes they take the form of populist politicians who use "democracy" to consolidate their power. That's the case in Venezuela, where President Hugo Chávez is promoting a national referendum this Sunday that would give him vast new authority. If he gets away with it, we hope his many American enablers will acknowledge their contribution.

Voters are being asked to approve 69 "reforms" that amount to an overhaul of the country's constitution. Mr. Chávez has promoted the vote, despite the view of many constitutional scholars -- some of whom are his former allies -- that these amendments require the election of a constitutional assembly. No matter. The president announced the referendum and had his rubber-stamp Congress approve it.

This is ironic, since Mr. Chávez all but wrote the 1999 constitution himself. But he has tired of its checks and balances, especially its decentralized power. He now wants to restore more authority to his central government. Communal councils will rule locally, but their members will no longer be elected; they will be appointed by the Chávez government. His name for this is "participatory democracy," which he prefers over the "representative" kind.

A "yes" vote will give the executive control over central bank reserves. To promote his "productive economic model," Mr. Chávez is also modifying private property rights. The new standard of ownership will be "mixed properties held between the State, the private sector and the communal power, so as to create the best conditions for the collective and cooperative construction of a Socialist Economy."

The state will have the right to occupy any private property that it plans to expropriate in advance of any judicial review. Any property deemed by the state to be nonproductive could be transferred to "public corporations, cooperatives, communities or social organizations." Perhaps you thought this sort of thing went out of style about 1989. But Mr. Chávez believes socialism didn't fail; it just wasn't tried with enough gusto.

Moving right along, the reforms would give Mr. Chávez the right to be re-elected indefinitely, and he will be able to name multiple vice-presidents to govern with the communal councils. The President will gain new powers to suspend due process during emergencies, and the legislature will lose its role in determining how long those emergencies last. To make all this go down with voters, Mr. Chávez has included in the referendum a 36-hour work week, a reduction in the voting age to 16, and more generous welfare benefits.

Mr. Chávez wouldn't be close to pulling this off if he hadn't already used his nine years in power to neuter Venezuela's independent political institutions. To gain control of the Supreme Court, Mr. Chávez increased the number of justices to 32 from 20. Then he fired the National Electoral Council (CNE) and named his own version, which presided over a crooked and non-transparent August 2004 recall referendum.

Former President Jimmy Carter nonetheless blessed that fraud, and the Bush State Department went along too. For their part, Venezuelans have so little faith in an honest vote that they boycotted the 2005 legislative elections; chavista candidates won 100% of the seats.

In 2002 Mr. Chávez also purged the military after it refused to fire on protestors and briefly removed him from power. In that event, Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd rushed to support Mr. Chávez while ignoring the pleas of labor unions, human rights activists and religious leaders that he was abusing his power. Another enthusiastic supporter is Joseph P. Kennedy II, who in exchange for discounts on Venezuelan oil has been promoting the president as a benefactor to America's poor.

Despite this help from abroad, Mr. Chávez's popularity at home has been dropping sharply as Venezuelans rebel against this electoral putsch. Students have been pushing back hard against limits on free speech, and even former ally General Raul Baduel has called the referendum a "coup against democracy" and joined the opposition.

Polls show most Venezuelans are also opposed, but a genuinely fair vote may be impossible. The President's electoral council controls the voter rolls, the voting machines and the ultimate count. Yet whatever Sunday's outcome, the real story of this referendum is that Mr. Chávez's days as a Venezuelan hero are over. His grab for power is so blatant that it has aroused a passive public, as shown by the huge and peaceful "no" rally in Caracas on Thursday. Maybe his American friends will even figure it out.

-The end-

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