This Sunday Venezuelans will vote on a referendum comprising 69 changes to the existing Constitution. Many of these push the country further toward Chavez’s 21st Century Socialism, expanding pensions for the elderly and reducing the workday to six hours. Others strengthen the power of the President and Chavez in particular, extending the Presidential term and allowing unlimited reelection, giving the President the power to appoint many more government officials, and limiting some civil liberties during states of emergency.
The polls show varying results, with some proclaiming a majority in support of the changes and others showing a majority against the proposals. What will really matter is turnout. Here, the “yes” vote has an advantage, since the government is already canvassing the media and will undoubtedly use state resources to encourage supporters to get to the polls. This mobilization will matter.
In addition, Chavez has played again the international anti-imperialist card in the lead up to the referendum. Chavez’s recent international outbursts, first with the King of Spain and more recently with Colombian President Uribe, deflect from the growing domestic discontent and confusion. His evocation of former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, who along with President George W. Bush tacitly supported the 2002 coup attempt against his government, seems designed to rally supporters before the upcoming vote, implicitly reminding voters of the turmoil brought on by political polarization. If that isn’t enough, the violence in recent weeks toward the opposition may scare some “no” voters away on Sunday.
Finally, the opposition has not been able to rally around one position, “ unlike more successful “no” campaigns, such as that leading up to Chile’s 1988 referendum. Some, notably those loyal to the old Accion Democratica political party are calling for a boycott. Others, including former Presidential candidate Manuel Rosales and his followers, are rallying for the no vote. And few seemed to have reached out to Chavez’s former defense minister, General Raul Isaias Baduel, who has criticized the proposals as effectively realizing a constitutional “coup.”
Whether the opposition can galvanize the uneasiness with these reform proposals, which encompasses not just the traditional opposition but student movements and many moderate Chavez supporters, will be answered on Sunday.