Venezuela Referendum: Plebiscite On Chavez

CARACAS -- Venezuelans will vote for a second time on Sunday on whether to scrap term limits, in a referendum that will lay plain their feelings about their president.

Voters will be asked to approve or reject a proposed amendment to the constitution that would get rid of all political term limits, thus paving the way for socialist President Hugo Chavez to run for re-election in 2012 and beyond.

Recent polls suggest a tight contest, with a margin of as little as 200,000 votes.

Opponents to the amendment have warned of a threat to Venezuela's democracy, and have bolstered their campaign by quoting Chavez's hero, the South American liberator Simon Bolivar: ""Nothing is so dangerous as allowing a single citizen to remain in power for a long time."

Chavez, meanwhile, has stressed that the amendment simply gives politicians the right to run again, rather than offering indefinite re-election. His campaign has been so careful to avoid the terms "indefinite" and "presidential term limits" that the phrases aren't included in the question voters will answer on Sunday. Instead, the question focuses on voters' "political rights."

But while both sides fight over semantics, in reality the vote is a plebiscite on Chavez's 10 years in office.

"This is a critical vote because we are going to see how much popularity Chavez has left at the moment," said Alex Sanchez, a research fellow at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs.

Should he lose, Chavez has warned of the dismantling of the social projects he's undertaken since becoming president. His "missions" -- programs that provide free healthcare, adult education and subsidized food markets -- have gained him loyal support in the shanty towns and remote villages of this petro-state.

"I think the president has done good things," said Ruth Ledezma, a retired dentist's secretary from the 23 de enero Caracas slum, a Chavez stronghold. "I'm voting 'yes' because I believe in the cause."

For their part, opposition political parties point to record homicide and kidnapping rates, as well as to spiraling inflation and sporadic shortages of basic staples of foods such as sugar, milk, chicken and coffee as signs that the government is running the country into the ground.

"I'm going to vote no because of the security issue, no because of the lack of housing, and no because of the abuse of power," said Neisa Monges -- who walked all the way from Petare, by some accounts the largest slum in South America, to the center of town in a march against the amendment last Saturday.

The government's claim that it has reduced poverty from 51 percent to 28 percent -- a statistic corroborated by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean of the United Nations (ECLAC) -- is misleading, charge opposition critics, who say that the reduction was accomplished on the back of an oil boom that saw oil prices rise from about $8 a barrel in 1998 to as high as $127 last year. The government relies on oil revenue for 93 percent of its income. Now, a per-barrel price of $40 will reveal the unsustainability of his revolution, they say.

Energy analysts have commented that the rush to pass this referendum -- so soon after regional elections in November -- is a sign that Chavez fears the economic repercussions of the slide in oil prices.

Finance Minister Ali Rodriguez told the newspaper El Universal that the government might "have to make great sacrifices in public spending," but added that they would avoid making cuts in the social sectors.

The amendment campaign has been fought amid mounting tensions and accusations of foul play between those for and against the proposal. Chavez sent in the riot police against university students opposed to the amendment -- after he accused them of disrupting civilian life.

The opposition has pointed to the open displays of allegiance to the government's "yes" campaign by certain state institutions -- such as the national oil company Petroleos de Venezuela -- as evidence that the government is illegally using state funds to promote the campaign. According to Reuters, just a few of the oil company employees could be found in their offices, as most were out campaigning for the government.

The Caracas metro, meanwhile, has been playing salsa jingles with lyrics that exhort voters to back the amendment.

And a report by the Media Monitoring Group found that 93 percent of the state TV channel Venezolana de Televison's broadcasts had a bias in favor of the "yes" vote. The report found that the leading opposition channel, Globovison, had a bias of 58 percent in favor of the "no" vote.

"While one can see that the state has been using public funds to promote its cause, you can also see that the opposition hasn't lacked its own outlets," said Rodolfo Magallanes, a professor in political studies at the Central University of Venezuela. "Undoubtedly, a portion of public funds have been used and unfortunately it has been like that in Venezuela's history."

The consequences of losing appear more serious for opposition parties than for Chavez. He told CNN that he could not rule out putting forward further referendums in coming years on the same issue, a move that was declared legal by the Supreme Court, which he controls. However, such a policy would damage his credentials as a democratic leader, and might cause him to lose support within his party.

"Latin American politicians are chameleons by default," said Alex Sanchez. "If the parties within his coalition realize he is losing support... they might say 'it's better to separate.'"

The deciding factor in the vote will be unaffiliated voters, a silent majority who make up as much as 32 percent of the electorate, according to a survey by polling firm Datanalisis.

Datanalisis found that of the demographic that identifies itself as neither with Chavez nor with the opposition, 65 percent said they were against the referendum.

But much would depend on their inclination to vote. "If abstention is less than 30 percent to 35 percent, a victory for the 'no' campaign is almost assured," said John Magdaleno, a political scientist at the Simon Bolivar University.

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