An Important but Risky Victory for Venezuela and for Socialism
The ten percentage point victory (55-45%) that President Chávez and his movement achieved on Sunday, February 15, 2009, in favor of amending
But before we can examine the consequences and meaning of this particular electoral result for
In General: Term Limits - Good or Bad?
Opinions on term limits are as varied as opinions about politics go. Also, this is one of the few issues that does not fall neatly along the left-right political divide. For example, sometimes it is progressives who advocate term limits because of the ridiculous obstacles challengers face against incumbents, particularly in elections for the U.S. Congress and
The most famous term limit, though, is the two-term limit on the
In other words, the arguments in favor of term limits cut both ways. On the one hand it is said that not having term limits makes needed change more difficult because of the power that long-time office holders amass. On the other hand, term limits can also be seen as an obstacle to long-term needed political change because it forces a change of leadership at a time when the leader's project might not be ready for such change (along the lines of, "You don't switch horses in the middle of the race"). Also, some add the argument that it is more democratic to allow citizens decide if they want a long-serving representative to continue to serve, rather than to force them out via an artificially determined time limit.
In the case of
Unfortunately, the recent debate about term limits in
Indeed, unfair advantage is enjoyed on both sides in the Venezuelan conflict. Media owners and the wealthy face few restrictions in campaigning and the government has been known to make use of some of its advantages to compensate (an accusation, though, that the opposition massively exaggerated).
If the opposition had managed to focus on the real issue, supporters of the amendment would have been forced to address this issue and
In Specific: Eliminating the Two-Term Limit for Chávez
Leaving aside the more general arguments for and against term limits, why eliminate the two-term limit for President Chávez? The main reason for this is that the Bolivarian project needs Chávez in order to continue and to be carried to its completion. First, he is the only undisputed leader who has so far proven to be able to unite an otherwise notoriously fractious coalition of
Second, not enough time has passed for the Chávez government to implement its vision of 21st century socialism (also known as Bolivarian Socialism and as Socialist Democracy). While ten years in office might seem like a long time, the Chávez government's program did not get off to a good start because of the vehement and often violent opposition it faced. Also, it was not really until late 2005, once the opposition in
In addition, even though Chávez has a mandate for building 21st century socialism because he won the presidency with 63% of the vote in December 2006 on a platform of establishing 21st century socialism, in December 2007 the project suffered an important setback when Chávez narrowly lost the constitutional reform referendum, which was supposed to provide the constitutional groundwork for the socialist project. To a large extent this defeat was self-inflicted, in that it was a confusing proposal, the campaign was poorly conducted, and many voters felt that too many issues remained unresolved for whose resolution a constitutional reform was not necessary. Nonetheless, Chávez has appealed to the Venezuelan people that he needs more time and a majority of the Venezuelan people has now agreed to give him this time.
What the Victory Means
Given the importance of Chávez for leading the Bolivarian project to its conclusion, the February 15 victory is extremely important for
The recent referendum victory becomes all the more important if we consider that the world is currently in a process of entering its worst economic crisis since the Great Depression 80 years ago. Back then people were desperate for an alternative to capitalism and there is no reason to believe that a similar development will not take place this time around. Viable alternatives to capitalism, whether under the heading of 21st century socialism or some other name, will become more important than ever. For better or worse, Chávez has become one of the few leaders in today's world to forge a path in the direction of this alternative.
However, while this might be true on a global scale, Chávez's electoral success bears some inherent risks for the Bolivarian movement. That is, it is precisely the dependency of the Bolivarian movement on Chávez that is simultaneously its greatest strength and one of its greatest weaknesses. This dependency is a strength in the sense previously mentioned, that Chávez unites what would otherwise be a very fractious movement. But it is also a weakness because such dependency makes the movement somewhat fragile. First, if anything were to happen to Chávez, the movement would probably fall apart into its component parts in no time. Second, given this fragility, questioning the leader is quite difficult because criticism rapidly threatens to undermine the movement's stability and main strength. As a result, debate within the movement tends to be possible as long as it does not question the leader's decisions or opinions. This, in turn, makes movement self-criticism difficult and makes the potential for errors all the greater.
Tasks for the Next Period
One of the first tasks for the Bolivarian movement thus is that it must continue to develop the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) so that the Bolivarian movement becomes less dependent on Chávez and more stable and more open to wide-ranging debate. This means, first of all, developing alternate leaders and strengthening party structures so that the whole party is more movement-driven and less leader-dependent. The recent referendum victory has expanded the time-horizon for this task because without the elimination of the two-term limit this development would have had to happen within the next four years. Expanding this time horizon, though, carries the risk that the task of strengthening the party and decreasing the dependency on Chávez is postponed until Chávez loses a presidential election or a recall referendum or is otherwise removed from fulfilling his office (via assassination, perhaps).
Second, as Chávez himself recognized during his victory speech, his government must take the fight against insecurity and the high crime rate far more seriously. In a recent interview with CNN Chávez said that one of the reasons he has not pursued the reduction of crime with stronger police measures is because he believes that crime is primarily caused by inequality and poverty and that reducing these ought to reduce crime. While it is an established fact that poverty and crime correlate very highly, it is also true that all available statistics indicate that reducing poverty in
Third, as some opposition critics have noted,  the real test of Chávez's economic policies is yet to come, when the price of oil is declining at a time when he cannot argue that the opposition caused the economic problems (as was the case during the oil industry shutdown 2002/2003). That is, the government will have to find ways to strengthen its efforts to create social justice in a time of fewer (oil revenue derived) resources. This would probably either mean going into debt so as to stave off a recession and/or taxing the country's rich far more heavily.
Finally, the fourth outstanding task for the next period is the deepening of participatory democracy against the resistance of chavismo's mid-level managers: the ministries, mayors, and governors. If popular power, as the system of direct democratic communal councils is often known, is the heart of Bolivarian Socialist democracy, then this will be the true testing ground for the viability of an alternative to capitalist democracy. So far, the communal councils have achieved much, but only in their own localities of 200-400 families. The real challenge, which Chávez has repeatedly announced, but which has yet to happen, is to bring these structures to a higher level, to the municipalities and perhaps even to state and national level. However, as many have observed, this is going to be difficult because few mayors and governors are willing to let go of their power.
If Chávez and his movement manage to tackle these four tasks in the next two to four years, then the future of Bolivarian Socialism will be bright indeed. Even though Chávez won this referendum, the next period is going to be quite short because if these tasks are not tackled successfully before the end of 2010, then Chávez faces the real possibility of losing his two-thirds majority in the National Assembly, or perhaps even his 50% majority, which would be a devastating blow. 
If things should go very wrong, such as if the economy were to crash for some reason (this does not seem likely, but cannot be discounted), then Chávez could even face a recall referendum in 2010. Should he weather these hurdles, though, the next real test will be the presidential election in late 2012.
In other words, even though the victory in the constitutional amendment referendum bought Chávez and his movement more time to complete the Bolivarian Socialist revolution, Chávez must deliver significant change in a relatively short amount of time if this project is to succeed in the long term. And even though the referendum has strengthened Chávez's hand in order to make these changes, it has also-paradoxically-potentially weakened the Bolivarian movement.
 This argument made very little sense, but was based on the fact that the 2007 constitutional reform referendum already included the proposal to eliminate the two-term limit on the presidency and was voted down and the constitution prohibits voting on the same reform proposal twice in the same legislative period. However,
 The opposition was defeated militarily with the failure of the coup attempt of 2002, economically in the oil industry shutdown of 2003, and politically with the recall referendum of 2004 and the national assembly elections of 2005
 While many say that
Source URL (retrieved on Feb 18 2009 - 13:46): http://www.venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/4228