Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez took a chance by asking his people to do away with term limits, giving him license to be their president indefinitely. He won his gamble on Sunday in a 54% – 46% vote.
The victory is worrisome — even more so, the reasons why this vote took place at all.
In 2007, the country rejected an extensive constitutional reform proposal that included eliminating term limits for Chavez, in what represented his first real setback since he came to power in 1998 (with the exception of his brief ousting in 2002).
Following this, Chavez focused all his energies on winning the regional elections of November 2008. He did win them. In his effort to gain a popular majority Chavez did not spare any expense to fuel his populist support, going as far as distributing free washers and refrigerators to his supporters.
Having regained his political balance Chavez boldly moved a week after the November vote, asking for a constitutional amendment to remove term limits.
With initial polling numbers problematic, Chavez was forced to abandon his former position of rejecting removal of term limits for all offices but his. The vote demonstrated that this strategy apparently worked — as did Chavez’s other unpleasant tactics.
The January-February campaign was the most violent Venezuela had seen since Chavez was first elected. The student movement who opposed him was repressed. Chavez went as far as demanding that police “throw tear gas, and of the strong kind” at any student demonstration.
Chavez also used naked blackmail, threatening the country with civil disorder if he was ever forced to relinquish the presidency.
In past months, we Venezuelans have been subjected to the most brutal and heavy-handed campaign we have ever endured in our democratic history, as the government threw all the power of the state behind Chavez, with open political activity in most public buildings. Public employees were required to donate one day’s paycheck to the campaign and attend a variety of political activities during working hours.
The opposition did its best to fight government dominance, but it was essentially penniless following the regional election of 2008. It was also vastly outspent.