Chavez Loses Quest for Expanded Power - But Just Barely

The referendum result in Venezuela does not resolve much and raises much more questions than the ones it was supposed to answer.

A victory endorsing President Hugo Chavez's referendum would have had validity only if it would have had the backing of a large chunk of the Venezuelan people. The profound constitutional changes proposed by Chavez could only be carried out, if, at the very least, a full 40% of potential electors would support it, independently of the actual result.

So with yesterday's close election, with a 44% abstention rate, the drastic changes proposed by Chavez would have benefited from the support of fewer than 1 in 3 Venezuelans if they had passed as narrowly as they were defeated.

No matter how legal the results might have been it is easy to imagine that the application of the new constitution to make Venezuela a socialist country would have been very, very difficult.

Considering that next year Venezuela is due for politically dangerous painful economic deadlines no crystal ball was required to predict social unrest. In this regard the NO victory is very good news in that the worse case scenario has been avoided.

However - the narrow margin of the NO victory, a bare 51%, does not resolve much. Certainly, it does not mean the exit of Chavez from the political scene in the near future. Serious polls are clear on that, many people who crossed the line to vote NO today would still vote to retain Chavez as president tomorrow.

Venezuela has reached a dangerous stalemate while Chavez has squandered his 63% victory of 2006 by pursuing a constitutional change stemming from his personal ambition rather than any urgent need for it in his the country. Chavez unfortunately has only himself to blame for the errors he made to bring about the constitutional changes and his less than stellar campaign.

So, what comes next?

The good news is that Sunday's voting went reasonably well considering the intensity of the campaigning over the last two weeks. Venezuelans have a history of peaceful and orderly voting to vote in peace and it was once more demonstrated.

The problems that took place related to the delay imposed by the Venezuelan electoral board. The result was thus announced officially more than one hour past midnight, while it already had been circulating for hours in many web pages. The government even "leaked" an inaccurate piece of news that Reuters swallowed hook, line and sinker.

The bad news is that Venezuela wakes up on Monday with its same problems and even less of an idea of what to do about them.

Now that the constitutional project of Chavez, which was the centerpiece of the "five motors of the revolution towards socialism," he announced last December has tanked - nobody knows what he will do. In earlier statements he had implied that a NO victory might force him to start already looking for a successor. Indeed, the extreme personalization of the campaign in its last three weeks turned the vote into a plebiscite on Chavez and the loss considerably complicates considerably his stay in office.

Yet, Chavez still holds a few key cards in his hand.

He controls all the established powers of the country, including all but two statehouses, and even presides over a National Assembly which is 98% at his service, and still enjoys considerable personal support in the population.

A little bit of skill and compromise could allow him to recover from this setback. There are general elections again next October for all state houses and even if it is clear that "chavismo" will lose a few, if it retains a majority of them Chavez would cease to be a lame-duck president.

Because this is the real problem, Chavez has still 5 years in his term but with the conditions of his Sunday defeat he is an effective lame duck. He needs to reach some compromise fast or a new electoral victory somewhere. His nature and the electoral calendar make this rather difficult.

Still, it could happen. At least in the early hours of Monday morning he spoke with a conciliatory tone that we had not heard in quite a while - and yet he couldn't resist slipping in a few veiled threats.

But Chavez has more pressing problem to attend right now.

First, a revolution that loses an election is always in trouble. The fanatical support from some of his most loyal followers could turn sour very quickly if Chavez looks hesitant for too long.

Second, Chavez has unpopular measures waiting that need to be taken soon such as price increases on many food items, gas increase, devaluation, and certain food item shortages that need to be addressed more effectively. The 4.4% inflation for last November will not help as it surely foreshadows a two-digit number next year.

Third, the very troubled Bolivian constitutional situation could aggravate fast as the country is on the verge of major disintegration. Chavez's sudden weakness could force president Evo Morales to distance himself from the Venezuelan leader with a perfect excuse to seek compromise with a strong and determined opposition of the Southern and Eastern provinces. Ecuador and Nicaragua could become more unreliable allies and Brazil could start applying more pressure on Chavez to let him get inside MERCOSUR, the free trade system of South America that Venezuela is having significant trouble integrating. Thus Chavez dream of a chavista ideological empire could crumble fast as more palatable leftists such as Ecuador's Correa could step in fast.

Chavez has a very few weeks to come up with a plan, courtesy of the holiday traditions in Venezuela which guarantee him social peace until mid January. On January 15, he must have some answers.

Chavez has a very few weeks to come up with a plan, courtesy of the holiday traditions in Venezuela which guarantee him social peace until mid January. On January 15, he must have some answers.

What about the other players? For the opposition celebration is de rigueur, but a muted one. Their electoral victory on the referendum was largely due to major defections from chavismo. The desertion of Raul Baduel, his ex-defense mister, the general largely responsible in rescuing Chavez during the 2002 coup, was a major blow to Chavez campaign. Chavez ex-wife, Marisabel Rodriguez, came out for the NO side. Finally, erstwhile ally, the political group PODEMOS became the new opposition inside Chavez National Assembly, until then a 100% pro Chavez body.

The debt owed by the Venezuelan opposition to the dissident student movement is enormous. Perhaps it was crucial on Sunday night to avoid any large scale fraud as they went to vote late and stayed for the counting. The opposition has very little chance to control or even to use to some advantage this vibrant movement which is fast reshaping the political agenda of the country.

Now the opposition has been given a brief window of opportunity to come up with a real message. Let's see what they will do with that.

The other piece of good news is that the defection of PODEMOS and Baduel could be the start of building up of a new "center" party that could be a political movement able to bridge the chasm between Chavez and his opposition.

This could go a long way to restore some degree of civility and political respect which is totally missing in Venezuela today. That is also where the dissenting student movement could come in: they have shown that the leaders of the future are already here and running. Unencumbered by past faults or current incompetence and cheap ideology, they might have a very bright future sooner than expected.

Caracas-based Daniel Duquenal blogs at Venezuela News and Views