10 diciembre 2007

Chavez Confronts Divided Nation in Constitution Vote (Update2)

Por Matthew Walter and Helen Murphy


Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, after nine years of easy electoral victories, faces something new this weekend: a close race.

A referendum will decide the fate of Chavez's plan to expand his powers by ending presidential term limits, allowing emergency rule, and making it easier to seize private property, among other items. Should it pass, the Venezuelan president will get almost complete power over local budgets and spending.

"After standing by the president in all he's done, we don't think this reform is necessary," said Arcadio Montiel, a lawmaker with the Podemos party, which split from Chavez's ruling coalition earlier this year. "For the first time, the people aren't going to obey the president."

Opposition to the proposal gained momentum this month after the Podemos party and a former defense minister broke ranks with Chavez, calling the plan a power grab. Some pollsters say the outcome of the Dec. 2 vote is too close to call a year after Chavez won re-election with 63 percent support. Venezuela law prohibits the publication of poll results in the week before the election.

On the Edge

"The opposition stands on the precipice of handing Hugo his worst defeat since the 48-hour coup" in 2002, said Edwin Gutierrez, who manages about $5.5 billion of emerging-market debt for Aberdeen Asset Management in London. "The big fear is that Chavez decides to win regardless -- he doesn't accept defeat well and the streets could get messy."

Pollster Consultores 30.11 has said voters are likely to approve the measure and UBS AG and Lehman Brothers Inc. today wrote in reports that voters are more likely to back Chavez.

"The polls that normally favor Chavez are showing a victory for the president, although not by the same margin over the opposition as he has enjoyed so far," said Marion Barbel, an analyst at Global Insight in London. "The fight will be tighter for Chavez."

Voters will consider the changes in a two-part ballot. The first block of 33 measures includes the elimination of term limits. The second set of 36 changes includes rules to guarantee gay rights and make it easier to fire judges.


Venezuela's opposition has failed to curb Chavez's expanding powers over the past nine years. A general strike ended with half the workforce purged from the state oil company, and Chavez handily defeated a recall referendum. The opposition's boycott of congressional elections solidified his power, giving Chavez's coalition every seat in congress and control of the courts, central bank and state media.

The proposed changes to the constitution, approved by congress, opened cracks in Chavez's coalition. Loyalists, such as former general and ex-Defense Minister Raul Baduel, called the plan a grab for power that was unconstitutional.

Clashes between protesters and police turned violent in recent weeks as opponents, including the Catholic Church, students and business groups, took to the streets to rally voters to go to the polls. Tens of thousands of people, including opposition parties and university student groups, flooded a main boulevard in downtown Caracas yesterday, waving Venezuelan flags and banners to urge voters to reject the new constitution.


Chavez supporters are staging their own march in the capital today. Thousands wearing red shirts and waving banners that read "Yes With Chavez" gathered at points across the city to march to a pro-Chavez rally in downtown.

The outcome will probably depend on voter turnout, since Chavez supporters have historically been more likely to participate, said Liliana Fasciani, a legal philosophy professor at the Universidad Catolica Andres Bello in Caracas and a newspaper columnist.

"Abstention helps the government," she said in a telephone interview. "The outcome is all going to depend on whether there is a huge participation level, or if people are afraid to vote or don't have confidence in the system."

Abstention has been fueled by what opposition politicians say are efforts by Chavez and his supporters in Congress and the courts to erode voters' confidence in the confidentiality of their ballots.

In the presidential election of December last year, the opposition filed two dozen complaints with the national electoral courts and international observers, saying authorities ignored requests for information on voting-machine software, the fingerprint devices used to establish voters' identity and the voting booths.

After a recall referendum on Chavez in 2004, people who signed a recall petition were put on a list that prevented their hiring by any state company. Some people were fired.

Steering the Ship

"Blacklisting left a mark in the memories of voters that has taken years to erase," said Roberto Abdul, a director at Sumate, a civic-action group that organized the recall bid.

Should the constitution changes pass, Chavez will be able to turn huge swaths of existing states into federal territories and create communal councils that would undermine existing city governments.

"I'll spend the rest of my life fighting for the future of the Venezuelan people," Chavez said in a speech Nov. 28. The new constitution is needed "so that I can continue steering the ship of the Republic, so that the revolution doesn't go away."

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