Chávez loses - for now

Observations on Venezuela in the wake of that country's crucial constitutional referendum

By a majority of just 150,000 votes, the Venezuelan electorate rejected a complex package of reforms to the constitution which would have allowed President Hugo Chávez to stand for indefinite re-election. The 2 December vote was Chávez's first setback, suggesting that some of his usual support peeled away.

A night of high drama saw the Venezuelan president concede victory by the slimmest of margins. The result means he will have to stand down when his term of office expires in January 2013.

It was the president's first defeat since he took office in 1998 and the first opposition election victory in 12 public votes. Until now, public support for the government has seemed insurmountable. Analysts believe that Chávez was partly let down by the high percentage (44 per cent) who chose to stay home rather than endorse or reject the wide-ranging reforms, but also say that moderate Chavistas had become alienated by their president's extreme rhetoric.

"Chávez waged a very confrontational campaign that turned off a lot of voters," says Elenis Rodríguez, national secretary for the opposition party Justice First. "He said if you do not vote for the reform, you are a traitor."

Rodríguez also believes that some people stayed home because they were worried about voter privacy. "Many did not agree with the reforms but were scared to vote for fear of losing their jobs."

Jorge Pérez, a Chavista member of a political radio co-operative, notes that Chávez lost the media war: "The Chavistas did a very poor job of informing the public on the more positive aspects of the constitutional reform, like social security for the informal economy and the right for decent housing.

"The opposition did a very effective job of highlighting the most controversial articles, like indefinite re-election and the status of private property. If you read the proposed constitution you would see that the right to private property is guaranteed, but if you followed the media campaigns you would think that the government wanted to confiscate all property," he says.

The Chávez campaign focused on international disputes, a strategy that would have appealed only to dedicated supporters whose votes were already guaranteed. At his closing rally, the president declared that "a vote against these reforms is a vote for George W Bush" and threatened to cut off oil supplies to the US if it attempted to "destabilise" the country after the elections.

There were also threats that Spanish banks in Venezuela would be nationalised if the King of Spain did not apologise for telling Chávez to shut up, and that diplomatic relations with Colombia might be cut off after President Álvaro Uribe's interference in his mediations with Colombia's FARC guerrillas. "Many in the barrios are Colombian immigrants who felt that Chávez disrespected their entire country, not just its president," says Rodríguez.

But the main problem with the reforms, according to Luis Eduard Monsano, a student activist, was that they did not offer solutions to the pressing issues of crime and unemployment.

"Our groups went to a lot of barrios and many people told us, 'Chávez yes, reform no.' We got the sense that a lot of these communities felt abandoned by him. They had supported him because of the social programmes he has implemented, but many were asking, 'What's next?'"

In fact, the reforms did include popular measures to guarantee housing rights for families and to implement a 36-hour working week, but the bulk of the 69 amendments consisted of wordy clauses on restructuring state power and administering finance - in such detail that they failed to strike a chord with the less ideologically orientated moderate Chavistas.

Many felt that instead of tackling the main problems of 21st-century Venezuela, where gun crime and corruption are rife, Chávez had attempted to enshrine socialism in the country's constitution.

According to Monsano, the schism between the president and his core voters started to emerge back in May when he chose not to renew the broadcasting licence of the opposition-aligned channel Radio Caracas TV.

"Four million people in the barrios and shanty towns watched RCTV's news programmes and soap operas. In the aftermath of the closure, the student movement sprang up out of nowhere, demonstrating that the young were not with the revolution. This is significant because throughout history all successful revolutions depended on, or were led by, the young."

Although students had been involved in isolated incidents of violence in the run-up to Sunday's vote, their passion and determination appear to have electrified Chávez's floundering political opponents.

"The opposition up to that point was demoralised after repeated election defeats. But suddenly the students felt democracy slipping away and decided to take action," says Monsano.

Out of the referendum is emerging a consensus between the government and opposition leaders that now is the time for reflection and the start of the long journey towards reconciliation. "Chávez has done a lot of good things. He has given the poor an outlet to express themselves. We need to recognise that and build on it," says Monsano.

Chávez conceded defeat magnanimously, congratulating the victors and admitting that it was too soon to introduce such radical reforms - though his message was more one of calm determination than humbled compromise. In 1992, the year of his failed coup attempt, he quipped on live television that he had only failed "por ahora" - for now. Last weekend he reassured his devastated supporters: "This is not a defeat, but another por ahora."

This article first appeared in the 10 December 2007 issue of the New Statesman, How New Labour turned toxic