The surprising defeat of a referendum this weekend to accelerate President Hugo Chavez’s socialist-inspired revolution has given new energy to his long-suffering opposition.
But just how long that momentum lasts will depend on whether his opponents can keep within their ranks the Venezuelans who defected from Chavez to vote no on the proposals.
For nine years, a combination of populist politics and rising oil prices have propelled Chavez’s socialist program for Venezuela with an almost inexorable momentum. On Sunday his country put on the brakes.
Those results have at once given the opposition a sudden boost and demonstrated the resilience of Venezuela’s institutions. They also showed that many of Chavez’s once-stalwart backers have grown frustrated with the rising prices and food shortages that have become symptomatic of his revolution, despite his promises to the poor.
Interviews in the barrios where Chavez’s support has run strong indicated that many of those no votes were as much an expression of frustration with government mismanagement as a warning to Chavez that he had finally overreached in proposing constitutional changes that would have ended term limits for the president and greatly centralized his power.
The rejection of his proposals amounted to a sharp rebuke from Venezuelans who let Chavez know they were hesitant to follow him much farther up the path to a socialist future if their current needs were not being met.
At play now is a large portion of the electorate. Chavez won re-election last year with about 63 percent of the vote, compared with the 49 percent that supported his proposed constitutional amendments. The opposition, which never won more than 41 percent in four national elections during Chavez’s presidency, got 51 percent over the weekend, illustrating its ability to win over voters who were loyal to Chavez in previous races.
The real test now for the opposition will be to fashion viable alternatives to keep those defectors. That will not be easy. Chavez and his supporters still control the National Assembly, the Supreme Court, almost every state government and the entire federal bureaucracy. The opposition, meanwhile, is recovering from years of tactical errors and marginalization from the country’s political life.