‘Not That Way, Commander’: ‘21st Century Socialism’ Checked by Referendum (ARI)

‘Not That Way, Commander’: ‘21st Century Socialism’ Checked by Referendum (ARI)

Theme: The constitutional reform project was rejected by a narrow margin, suggesting that most Venezuelans do not agree with the intentions of the chavista elite to move the country towards socialism.

Summary: Nine years after coming to power, Hugo Chávez has not been able to establish a dominant movement, despite having a wealth of material, political and institutional resources at the disposal of his government. Disregarding this, on 2 December 2007, the government decided to submit a major constitutional reform to popular referendum, leading to the President’s first electoral defeat. While objections can be made to the method chosen (the changes should have been discussed and negotiated at a Constituent Assembly), the most significant aspect of the ‘No’ victory –in which various factors came into play– is that it shows that a significant percentage of Chávez’s supporters are unwilling to hand him a blank cheque, either because they do not understand his complex and, in some ways, confusing proposal, or because they do not agree with it. The results show that leadership and the use of a vertical power structure are not enough to impose radical changes. The complexity of the situation does not allow for short-term optimism regarding solutions to the conflict. However, the events of recent months and the shifts in position within each bloc could make room for dialogue and lead to certain compromises between the Government and the opposition in the medium term.

Analysis: In the presidential elections of 3 December, 2006, Hugo Chávez was re-elected by a large majority (with 62.85% of the vote versus 36.91% for the opposition candidate Manuel Rosales). His victory heralded more radical steps in the process underway since 1999. As he said during the election campaign, voting for his candidacy meant supporting ‘21st century socialism’, a vague concept that alludes to the desire to build a socialist model not based on the failed experiments of the past century. He took the opportunity of the election results and the start of his new presidential mandate to announce five ‘drivers’ to accelerate change: (1) The Ley Habilitante (‘Enabling Law’) approved in February 2007, which grants the President sweeping powers to pass decrees with the effect of law during an 18-month period in areas as wide-ranging as political issues, social programmes, economic policy, public administration, security and defence. The Act was passed by a one-party National Assembly, since the opposition had boycotted the 2005 elections. This instrument served, for example, to begin the nationalisation of certain ‘strategic enterprises’ (telephone and electrical companies) and to turn strategic associations in the Orinoco Belt into public/private joint ventures.

(2) A comprehensive and profound reform of the 1999 Constitution, laying the foundations of a socialist model.

(3) ‘Moral y Luces’ (‘Morals and Enlightenment’): a project to replace individualist and capitalist values with other, socialist-inspired values, through public education in many different venues (schools, workshops, factories, neighbourhoods, etc).

(4) A new ‘geometry of power’: territorial reorganisation of political, economic, social and military power.

(5) An ‘explosion of communal power’, with political, social, economic and administrative power transferred to communities. This is intended to continue the process begun in April 2006 with the creation of communal councils. These councils were conceived as local participatory bodies. The Government’s intention was for them to manage public funds directly and compete with the local and regional representative authorities. They could be easily manipulated by the national Executive, since council members are elected by ‘citizen assemblies’ controlled by the government.

While the Enabling Law granted the President many powers and enabled him to act swiftly in some areas, the key component of his medium- to long-term plan was constitutional reform, with significant implications for the other ‘drivers’. Bringing about such changes required an organisation with the capacity to mobilise citizens beyond election campaigns, and so, after the latest elections, Chávez dissolved the Fifth Republic Movement (Movimiento V República – MVR) and asked the other parties in the chavista orbit to do likewise and to join the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela – PSUV). This party has remained an empty shell. Although the intention was to create a more democratic and cohesive structure, it very quickly became clear that its promoters wanted total control of the new party. There were also disputes among some pro-government organisations regarding the dissolution. For their part, many citizens wanted to join in order to keep or obtain social benefits of some kind. By mid-2007, there were more than five million applications to join the new organisation. One of the paradoxes of the process of creating the party is that no congress was held and there are no card-carrying members, but there is a disciplinary committee. In any case, due to the huge support received at the ballot box, the high concentration of power and the use of large amounts of oil revenue to grease the various ‘drivers’, Chávez started out with ample manoeuvring room to implement his political agenda.

However, two issues took a considerable toll on the government in 2007 and had a significant impact on the outcome of the constitutional reform process. First, the decision not to renew the concession of the RCTV television channel, which ended in May 2007. This was a legally valid step, but one with a clearly political goal, since this popular channel had spoken out, along with others, against Chávez’s project, to the point of taking part in the turbulent and destabilising period that led to the failed coup attempt in 2002. Its closure was met with widespread disapproval and protest, including protests by university students who took to the streets convinced that freedoms were in danger. Student demonstrations against the reform process continued and ended up galvanising a frail and fragmented opposition.

A second factor was that certain underlying problems worsened, including security, increases in the cost of living and supply shortages. Even the ‘social missions’ (misiones sociales), the action with the greatest success and public impact –designed to win the 2004 referendum on Chávez’s presidency– seemed to have exhausted their purpose. But the government, more focused on building a new model, seemed to lose touch with public opinion, perhaps due to the pace of economic activity and the positive trends in certain socio-economic indicators. Neither did the government appear very interested in dealing with problems that began to compromise the consolidation of the project, such as red tape, clientelism, corruption, lack of administrative continuity, improvisation and inefficiency in public services. Although the time did not seem right to move ahead with such a radical project, and although the State did not have sufficient capacity, not to mention the problems mentioned above, the President and his collaborators decided to push forward nonetheless.

The Scope of Constitutional Reform
Legally, the initiative to reform the Constitution began with the President, who promoted his strategy with a Presidential Council for Constitutional Reform. This Council, headed by the President of the National Assembly and made up of representatives of the various public powers, worked in ‘strict confidentiality’, following his directives. On 15 August 2007, Chávez presented a Draft Bill for Constitutional Reform, which changed 33 of the Constitution’s 350 articles. On 2 November, the National Assembly approved a reform project that included changes to another 36 articles not considered in the original proposal. In total, 69 articles were put to a vote, along with 15 temporary provisions, a repealing provision and a final provision. Initially, the members of the Assembly decided that the reform would be voted on as a single block, but later, at the request of the President, who made good use of his political intuition, the reform was split into two blocks before being submitted to referendum: one with the presidential proposal, plus 13 related articles; the other, with the rest of the articles, which made up a third of the project (while the temporary, repealing and final provisions were included in the question for both blocks). The referendum date was set for 2 December 2007. The government prepared the reform project without any major obstacles, given its control of the National Assembly. Only the Podemos social democratic party withheld its vote, since it considered the procedure to be unconstitutional. The controlled and oligarchic character of the process distanced the proposal from the public, and the so-called ‘parliamentarianism of the streets’ (discussion in popular assemblies) had little impact. The serious deficiencies of the ‘participatory and protagonistic’ democracy so loudly trumpeted by the government once again became very clear.

At least two factors that had a bearing on the reform project are worth considering. The first is whether the best constitutional procedure was followed. The Constitution clearly states that the reform mechanism is correct only in cases of partial revision that do not suppose a modification of its structure and principles. Therefore, since the purpose of the reform was a profound transformation of the State and laying the groundwork of a socialist order (the project alludes to a ‘socialist democracy’, ‘socialist State’ and ‘socialist economy’), the right thing would have been to convene a Constituent Assembly. But the defenders of the project did not consider it appropriate, despite its more democratic character. Secondly, it is useful to examine certain themes of the project to understand the magnitude of the changes. Altogether, the proposal combined improvements in some areas with backward steps in others. The wording of important issues is unclear and imprecise. Perhaps the speed of the process and a lack of maturity on certain issues explain the shortcomings in legal technique.

At the political level, the presidential term was lengthened from six to seven years. Also –and this was a controversial subject both inside and outside the country– the reform allowed re-election an indefinite number of times, instead of the current system that allows only two consecutive terms. The change, applicable only to the presidency, since it excluded governors and mayors, was accompanied by greater powers for the President. These included the power to create or eliminate different territorial units (federal provinces, federal territories, maritime regions, functional districts, strategic defence zones, etc.), as well as the power to appoint and dismiss the authorities of these units, appoint various vice-presidents and promote officials of all ranks and hierarchies in the Bolivarian Armed Forces (FAB) –the name that would replace the current Venezuelan Armed Forces or FAN. The fact that this was conceived of as a ‘patriotic, popular and anti-imperialist’ force, the role that it was assigned and the creation of a National Militia as component of the military –plus the fact that the FAB would be responsible to the President– seemed to many to imply a serious risk of militarising the country, something seen only in part of the State at present.

The second strategic area was the creation of ‘popular power’ in a new framework of political and territorial organisation of power. The primary political unit would be the cities, made up of communes (territorial social cells) which in turn would be made up of communities, each of which would form the basic territorial unit of the Venezuelan Socialist State (article 16 of the proposal). This popular power would not arise from ‘any vote or election’ but from ‘their condition as human groups organised as the base of the population’. It would also be expressed by the establishment of communities, communes and self-governing cities, through communal councils and other sectoral councils (workers, students, rural labourers, craftspeople, etc.) (article 136). The idea that popular power would be one more territorially-based public authority was accompanied by a weakening of the power of the states. Even the trend toward decentralisation lost ground with the disappearance of the Federal Council of Government (not activated to date) and the creation of the National Council of Government on a non-permanent basis (article 185). The text does not point to a standard federal scheme, but to a transfer of powers to the municipalities and communities, which in principle are highly dependent politically and financially on the National Government, which is also strengthened in the process.

The creation of a socialist economy was also proposed, in which businesses and economic units that give priority to communities and the State would be favoured over private enterprise, which would play a secondary role. Also, monopolies would be prohibited and five types of property would be established: public, social, collective, mixed and private. This means private property would not be confiscated, but the scheme was not well received and the issue raised a great deal of controversy and led to a considerable media campaign. Meanwhile, in order to provide the Government with greater scope for manoeuvre in the construction of this hypothetical socialist State, the Central Bank of Venezuela lost its independence from the State (article 318).

The desire to improve living conditions for the lowest classes is clearest in the social fields, but at the same time the fact cannot be ignored that some of the issues included were part of a political strategy aimed at gaining public acceptance of the most controversial aspects of the reform. The constitutionalisation of the ‘social missions’ was somewhat questionable in part because it amounted to an acknowledgement of the government’s inability to further institutionalise a welfare state, and also because of the difficulties in terms of management and accountability that became clear during these years. At the same time, social security (fondo social) for self-employed workers was considered and the working day was to be reduced from eight to six hours.

Other issues, impossible to summarise here, were tackled –some with a positive impact, such as the elimination of large land holdings (latifundios)–. Others, by contrast, marked a clear step backwards. This was the case of some aspects of the participatory democracy that were presented as attempts to encourage greater participation: among other things, the threshold of signatures needed to convene a Constituent Assembly or to activate the mechanism to hold referendums on removing officials from public office were increased. Finally, there was great controversy around the elimination of a maximum length for states of emergency (‘they will continue as long as the causes that motivated them remain’), the temporary suspension of constitutional guarantees (except for certain basic ones), and changes to which rights would not be covered by these guarantees, such as the right to due process and the right to information, which are included in the current Constitution. Perhaps the proponents were thinking more about the events surrounding the 2002 coup attempt than about advanced ideas of human rights.

The Campaign and Electoral Conditions
The campaign was short –barely a month– compared with the previous elections. The escalating tensions and conflicts over the past year were felt by both blocs –those in favour and those against the reform– both of which did their campaigning in a polarised environment with some incidents of violence. Several issues should be highlighted. First, there was no real debate on the project and its consequences. The campaign focused more on a simple presentation of the social model at stake, with the denunciation of certain reforms, which were often presented in a distorted manner. Supporters of the official line at first highlighted the features most attractive to the lower-income and working classes in the framework of a more democratic socialist model that would generate greater welfare. Growing public acceptance of the opposition’s message, combined with the indifference –or even opposition to certain articles of the reform– shown by many Chávez supporters, forced the government to modify its strategy well into the campaign and turn the referendum into a plebiscite on the President. Chávez said it clearly: ‘whoever votes “No” is voting against me’. He even turned to international political issues (confrontations with the US and Colombia and the tiff with Spain), using a very aggressive and threatening tone to rally his supporters. For their part, opposition sectors focused on denouncing the creation of an authoritarian socialist (totalitarian) State with militarist tendencies. They also made frequent allusions to the extraordinary concentration of power in Chávez’s hands, the elimination of alternating power in government and greater governmental control of society. But beyond all the denunciations, some opposition sectors used slogans designed to create fear in the population regarding issues such as private property, indefinite re-elections and the custody of children.

Secondly, there were significant developments or changes in both blocs regarding the very recent past. Unity among pro-government forces was broken by disputes over how weak or how profound the reform was. Some radical leftist groups declared themselves against it, as did the Podemos party and some well-known figures such as the former Defence Minister Raúl Isaías Baduel, a comrade-in-arms of Chávez and one of his main backers in the failed coup of 2002. Even some governors and mayors, as well as members of parish councils (which would disappear with the reform) did what they could to make the reform fail. This lack of unity was accompanied by poor coordination among the main parties that backed the President. The government’s election campaign group, the Comando Zamora, was not able to run the campaign energetically or efficiently either: the machinery was not working at full capacity to mobilise voters, in part as a result of the lack of maturity of the PSUV, which had little grassroots support, but also due to its total lack of receptiveness to criticism from its own ranks, the errors it made in ‘selling’ the reform and its poor ability to respond to the opposition campaign. For its part, the opposition used different political and legal weapons in the final months, according to the circumstances, to challenge the proposal for constitutional reform: it requested that the referendum be postponed, demanded it be suspended and requested an article-by-article vote. Finally, convinced that there was no going back, and since abstentionist strategies had had such poor results in the past, most opposition groups joined forces to back a ‘No’ vote and only the small radical opposition called for abstention. The vast university student movement opposed to the reform contributed to this unified action. The Venezuelan Episcopal Conference, in conflict with the regime, also issued political communiqués supporting the opposition.

Another relevant aspect of the campaign was the lack of balance in the information presented for and against the reform in the news media, depending on whether the media were publicly or privately controlled. According to some studies, such as the one carried out jointly by the Andrés Bello University and Göteborg University, the bias was strongest in the case of national public television. The advantage enjoyed by the official line was clear. As was the case on previous occasions, there were numerous accusations that public resources were being used for public employees to attend pro-government marches and demonstrations. There were even reports of pressure and threats from Government Ministries, departmental governments, city halls and independent organisations for workers to attend scheduled political events.

Apart from campaign issues themselves, electoral conditions have led to conflicts in recent years and have played a direct part in the demobilisation of broad sectors of the electorate. In recent years, the opposition has made repeated claims that the National Electoral Council (CNE) is biased and that the electoral system lacks transparency. Although there has been no empirical evidence of fraud to date, it is true that, as various organisations have shown, there are certain problems and shortcomings in the government administration and the functioning of the electoral system. The Electoral Register continues to be a very sensitive issue. However, since the 2006 presidential elections, the electoral authority has made clear efforts to guarantee the secrecy of the ballot and the security and reliability of the system. On this occasion, it was easier to guarantee the transparency and security of the automated electoral process since there were no candidates involved. On the issue of electoral conditions, it is important to emphasise that most of the opposition was pragmatic and did not get bogged down in a mud-slinging campaign that would have done little to further its objectives and would have demotivated its supporters. Meanwhile, at the technical level, the event went as planned and the voting process was observed with the approval of the technical personnel of both blocs. There were no technical missions of observers from the OAS or the EU, but there were international observers invited by political organisations and by the CNE. There were also national NGOs such as Ojo Electoral and thousands of witnesses at voting stations accredited by each bloc.

The Results
There were more ‘No’ votes by a narrow margin in each of the two blocks of the reform (1.31% and 2.02%, respectively) –figures lower than those predicted by most polls. According to CNE figures (based on 94% of the total ballots cast), the ‘No’ side obtained 4,521,494 votes (50.65%) on the first choice, while the ‘Yes’ side received the support of 4,404,626 voters (49.34%). For the second block, 4,539,707 (51.01%) opted for ‘No’ and 4,360,014 (48.99%) voted ‘Yes’. Abstention in both cases was very similar, near 44%. ‘Yes’ won in 15 states and ‘No’ won in eight (in nine in the case of ‘Block B’), and in the Capital District. In Carabobo, Miranda and Zulia, three of the four most important states –the other being Aragua– voters rejected the reform. In the municipalities collectively known as Greater Caracas (Gran Caracas), ‘No’ was victorious, as was also the case in some of the working class districts of the capital.

Comparisons inevitably arise with the results of the presidential elections of December 2006, when Chávez obtained 7,300,988 votes and the opposition candidate, Rosales, 4,287,467. The opposition did not significantly increase its usual levels of support, but on this occasion other factors came into play, such as the revitalised opposition by university students, the unified strategy and an effective campaign. It is also likely that a small percentage of Chávez supporters voted ‘No’ due to their discontent with the general situation or because they did not agree with some of the proposals in the reform. Pro-government forces, meanwhile, brought nearly three million fewer voters to the ballot box. It is not easy to explain what happened, especially without the aid of post-referendum surveys. However, some hypotheses can be made. First of all, it is likely that many of the President’s followers did not fully understand the purpose of the reform and did not want to give him a blank cheque. Some people even associated it with their declining standard of living, something that did not occur in the presidential elections (here, the fear factor, skilfully handled by the opposition, may have played an important role). Some abstentions may also have been due to the most controversial articles, in some cases perhaps because of the confusion surrounding them, whether real or induced. Another important reason may have been discontent with the government’s track record at the different territorial levels. However, based on the results in states such as Amazonas, Portuguesa and Trujillo, this effect does not appear to have been very strong. Added to this was the process by which the reform was prepared, which met with disapproval from many quarters and may have played a role in the lack of commitment and of interest in certain sectors. Also, the lack of a good public information campaign prevented the proposed text from being more widely known and better understood in such a short time frame. Finally, as discussed above, pro-government forces made significant errors during the campaign. It is clear that Chávez’s leadership was overestimated and that by turning the referendum into a plebiscite he failed to convince many people.

Conclusions: It is possible that conditions do not exist to establish a socialist model due to the strong social attachment to the values and principles of liberal democracy and capitalism. However, the fact cannot be ignored that a significant percentage of voters support such a model in a country where the radical left has always been a very small minority. Neither do the country’s citizens appear to be willing to consolidate, through indefinite re-election, a charismatic leader who would guarantee the continuity of the process –something that raises a great deal of concern among his collaborators and followers–. Although many citizens who support Chávez stayed home on 2 December, we cannot deduce from this that in all cases they give their ideological support to a project headed by a President who would renew his leadership periodically at the ballot box. Apart from other factors mentioned above, it should be kept in mind that many voters have established a utilitarian relationship with the regime, founded on inclusive policies and expectations of improved living conditions –something that also occurred in the past with other governments–. This relationship may have weakened in the past year as certain problems have worsened, hitting the lower-income classes hardest. Part of the result could be interpreted as a serious warning to public authorities. The people are with the President, but distrust his collaborators. Chávez’s supporters moved too quickly. They did not assess the situation correctly nor did they use the right strategy. Their haste to ensure his repeated re-election might explain a good deal of their mistakes.

Chávez’s first defeat in his nine years in power shows the limits of a project based on his leadership. It is premature to affirm that we are witnessing his decline and that the so-called Bolivarian Revolution is running out of steam, but the results will certainly force government supporters to reassess their strategy. It does not appear likely that the President can go on much longer developing his project more on the basis of expectations than on realities. But solving the average citizen’s problems depends very much on how the government decides to bring about the changes. It is clear that the most radical sectors are convinced of the virtues of the socialist project promoted by the Commander-in-Chief. And they may well try to make use of another mechanism to salvage the essential parts of the reform, including his re-election. Unless the spirit of the Constitution is changed, this will not be feasible without convening a Constituent Assembly –something that does not appear to be part of the short-term plans–. This scenario would be very risky since it could spark a period of greater conflict, with unpredictable results.

In a less extreme scenario, the President, who still enjoys a high level of popularity, holds many powers and has a large income, would opt to pass part of the failed reform by using other instruments included in the Constitution (amendments, ‘Enabling Law’, etc). Considerations such as his continuity in power beyond the current period would be ruled out in this scenario, with repercussions difficult to evaluate at this point due to the uncertainty of the situation. It seems clear, though, that he would also have to devote energy to solving some urgent problems for the lower-income classes, or else risk losing a great deal of support in future elections. In this case, though conflicts with the opposition would continue, they could be less severe. At the same time, the fact that Chávez would only be in power until 2012 would affect his policy of international alliances and projects.

A third possibility is that the President and his immediate collaborators might heed the message sent by the majority of Venezuelans, who reject violence and are in favour of dialogue. This would allow him the opportunity to test the reliability of the opposition, which since the referendum has been conciliatory and willing to negotiate certain measures. This scenario seems unlikely today, given the polarisation and the desire of pro-government forces to impose their project even if they have to adapt it to the verdict of the ballot box. In any case, and in general, unless new political players appear very soon as a result of the recent developments, it appears that there will be a two-part game played by the two camps. At one level, there will be regular, continuous conflicts about the nature of the regime and certain policies; at the other, electoral level, they will develop strategies to maintain or gain further powers through the local and gubernatorial elections in 2008.

In short, the situation is highly complex and subject to unknowable factors, such as a significant drop in oil prices, which would be felt immediately, or if the results of monetary restructuring in early 2008 prove to be disastrous. In the short term, in any case, it is clear that there will be adjustments in each bloc, but it does not appear that the tensions and conflicts of recent years are likely to ease. However, some of the transformations that have occurred in recent months could help alleviate them.

Manuel Hidalgo
Carlos III University (Madrid) and visiting analyst at the Instituto de Estudios Superiores de Administración (IESA) in Caracas