Venezuela's Recall Show-Down
First, the three-year anniversary marks the half-way point of Chavez' term in office and is thus the point after which Venezuelans who want to revoke the president's mandate may begin petitioning for a recall referendum. Second, it is the point at which the Chavez government has launched a campaign to showcase the achievements of its administration. And third, coincidentally, it is the same week in which the country's fifth power, the National Electoral Council, has finally been named, thus making recall referenda and other elections possible.
The next morning, at 7am, several trucks surreptitiously pulled up at the headquarters of the National Electoral Council, to deliver 3.2 million signatures, which were collected six months earlier, to petition for the recall referendum against President Hugo Chavez. Later that day, the opposition held a major demonstration, which attracted anywhere between 50,000 and 150,000 participants.
In the political sphere, the Chavez government has had a major achievement, which is the democratization of Venezuelan society. The introduction of a more democratic constitution provides for numerous opportunities for citizens to become directly involved in politics. Aside from the possibility of introducing referenda upon citizen initiative, the constitution assures civil society the right to participate in the selection of officials for the judiciary, the citizen power (attorney general, human rights ombudsman, and comptroller general), and the national electoral commission.
Also, a new media law has enabled the creation of many new community radio and television outlets, giving ordinary citizens the opportunity to participate in the dissemination of entertainment and information.
First, there was the natural disaster of 1999, whose mudslides caused anywhere between 15,000 and 30,000 deaths, well over 100,000 homeless, and over $3.2 billion of damage. Then, in April 2002, the coup attempt against the Chavez government caused substantial capital flight and further significant economic losses. Third, from early December 2002 to late January 2003, the opposition managed to temporarily shut-down the country's primary industry, the oil industry, which constitutes 80% of the country's export earnings. The total damages caused by this shutdown are estimated to be between $7 and $10 billion, leading to a nearly 30% contraction of economic activity (GNP) in the first quarter of 2003 and one of the country's most serious recessions on record.
In the social sphere the government has recently started a major literacy campaign, which is currently benefiting about one million illiterate Venezuelans, and a health care campaign, which provides doctors to the remotest poor neighborhoods that previously had received no medical attention at all.
Finally, in the international sphere, Venezuela has led the way to reconsolidate OPEC, to challenge the policies of the IMF and of neo-liberal economics, to question U.S. foreign policy, and to unify Latin America economically and politically.
More moderate members of the opposition focus on the troubled economy and the apparent pro-Chavez dominance in the Supreme Court and the National Assembly. However, the economy, while definitely in trouble now, would probably be doing quite well, given the high price of oil, if it had not been for the aforementioned three shocks, two of which were caused by the opposition. As for pro-Chavez dominance on the Supreme Court and National Assembly, this has in practice not been any different than the pro-Bush sentiment on the U.S. Supreme Court or in the U.S. Congress.
National Electoral Council
The only way this referendum could happen, though, is if there is a National Electoral Council that both sides trust. After months of wrangling in the National Assembly, the Supreme Court took up the task and named the five members on August 25th, just in time for its self-imposed deadline. Both sides, opposition and government, have expressed confidence that the selection is fair and say they will ratify the decision soon.
Also, the signatures need to be verified and many government supporters claim that many signatures are illegal because two banks supposedly supplied their customer data to the recall petition. Three other important tasks ahead for the electoral commission are the purification of the voter registry, which contains thousands of deceased Venezuelans, the setting of detailed procedures for a recall referendum, and the scheduling of about fifty smaller recall referenda for governors and mayors.
The media, both national and international, love to present the latest polling data on Venezuela, which claims that Chavez would suffer a massive loss in a recall referendum, with as much as two-thirds of the electorate voting against him. First of all, assuming that turn-out is about the same as it was when Chavez was first elected, at least 60% of the population actually has to vote against the president in order for his mandate to be revoked (an equal or greater number must vote in favor of a recall as first voted in favor of the president).
Another interesting piece of polling data is that in another recent poll (by the U.S. consulting firm Keller Associates), when asked whether or not people trust Chavez and whether or not they trust the opposition, the amount of distrust is about the same, around 60% for both. That is, even if the polls are accurate, or even if they mostly reflect the opinions of the less poor segments of the population, a rejection of Chavez does not necessarily mean an acceptance of the opposition. Besides, if accurate, a popularity rate of 35-40% is actually quite good for a president who has been in office for four years, is in the midst of a serious recession, and has to withstand the constant onslaught of an oppositional private mass media. In Peru, where there is no recession and no one-sided oppositional media, President Toledo has only 11% approval ratings and the population does not have the recourse of a recall referendum.
Also, traditional Christmas bonuses, which in Venezuela can be as much as three month's salary, will tend to put people in a better mood towards the government, at least among those active in the formal economy. Those in the informal economy will still struggle, but they too benefit from increased consumer spending during the Christmas season. In any case, it seems that a fair estimate of Venezuela's electorate would find that roughly one third are die-hard Chavistas, one third are die-hard oppositionals, and one third are in the middle and influence-able by either side. Thus, it is this third group that the outcome of any election will depend upon. And which way they will go is impossible to tell for now.