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POLITICS-VENEZUELA: Overwhelming Support for Constituent Assembly

Estrella Gutierrez

CARACAS, Apr 26 1999 (IPS) - An overwhelming 92 percent of those who voted in Sunday’s referendum in Venezuela approved the creation of a Constituent Assembly to politically “refound” the country. Some analysts argued, however, that the record low voter turnout of 40 percent weakened the process.

Opposition and governing alliance interpretations of the results of the first referendum in Venezuelan history and their significance for President Hugo Chavez are contradictory, however.

Chavez promoted the idea of a Constituent Assembly as a route toward the peaceful – and lawful – transformation of the foundations of Venezuelan democracy, and called for a referendum on the issue when he took office Feb 2.

The president declared that he felt “happy regarding the results, and a winner along with the people.” He added that the overwhelming support for an Assembly “ratified the backing I received in December,” when he was elected president with 56 percent of the vote.

Chavez denied that the low turnout reduced the legitimacy of the route chosen for the emergence of “a new democracy, hand in hand with the people and in peace,” because “a referendum is not measured by abstention,” and the backing was achieved without any campaign for the “yes” ballot.

Voters backed the late June election of the 131 members of the Constituent Assembly, to be installed Jul 5. The Assembly is to function for six months. Another referendum will be held in January to approve the text of the year 2000 constitution, which is to replace the 1961 constitution.

“The image is that of a victory which was not completed,” maintained Carlos Blanco, former president of the now-defunct Commission for the Reform of the State in the early years of the decade. Although an adversary of Chavez, Blanco backed the creation of an Assembly.

“The message is clear: change is unstoppable,” the vice- president of Congress, opposition legislator Henrique Capriles, told IPS. “But the president must understand that the agenda does not end here, and that there is an economic emergency that must be addressed.

“Within the low turnout there is a silent criticism of Chavez, his lack of action in tackling the profound economic crisis, and his style of confrontation with the other branches of power,” said Capriles, an independent from the ranks of the christian democrats who at age 26 made his political debut as president of the Chamber of Deputies.

Of the two questions voted in the referendum, the one referring to whether a Constituent Assembly should be held garnered 92 percent of the votes. The second question, referring to the election of the 131 members of the Assembly and the limits of their functions, took 87 percent.

Those projections were based on the tallying of 81 percent of all ballots cast, although the National Electoral Board said the proportions would faithfully reflect the final outcome.

Thus, a majority of voters defined the result, making unnecessary the participation of more than half of all registered voters.

Analyst Fausto Maso joined those who interpreted a defeat for Chavez in Sunday’s results, but one which could be “very beneficial for the president if he knows how to read it.”

Maso pointed out that now the Assembly could become more than “just a ‘Chavista’ project;” that the “matrix of the opposition that the president is calling for and which does not exist” could emerge from the Assembly; and that “defeats teach us more than victories, something that the politician and military man in Chavez knows.”

Chavez, a 44-year-old retired lieutenant-colonel, attempted to seize power with arms in 1992, and personified the popular rage against traditional politicians and their poor leadership with a discourse containing a profound social content.

The highest level of abstention recorded in Venezuela up to now was 54 percent, during the 1995 regional and municipal elections.

While stressing that Chavez maintained the level of support expressed in the December elections, Blanco said “he suffered a clear erosion by failing to draw new followers.”

“Chavez was defeated with this weak participation,” said Alberto Franceschi, leader of ‘Proyecto Venezuela’, the emerging centre-right force whose candidate, Henrique Salas, tailed Chavez in the December elections.

But different analyses emerged from within the ranks of the ‘Polo Patriotico’, the alliance of leftists and former coup- leaders that backs Chavez.

Although pointing out that the low turnout “must be read by all of us, the government as well as the opposition, which never presented an alternative and opposed Chavez without facing up,” prosecutor Javier Elechiguerra said “the most conclusive aspect is the triumph of the ‘yes’ to a radical change through an Assembly.

“Measuring abstention in comparison with a different kind of election is a subtle maneuvre by those who do not want to perceive reality,” he argued.

“Chavez was the big winner,” said Aristobulo Isturiz, former mayor of Caracas and considered the Polo’s most brilliant parliamentarian. “Alone against everyone he obtained overwhelming support, without any campaign.”

The governor of the oil-rich western state of Zulia, Francisco Arias, one of the commanders who accompanied Chavez in his uprising, said “this is the first occasion in the history of the country that people were not hauled to the polls.

“Those who voted were motivated to do so,” he added, recalling how up to now, the two main traditional parties and other political groupings have carried out major operatives to bring their supporters to the polls.

The exponents of the two-party system which dominated the political scene until Chavez shouldered them out – the social democratic Democratic Action (AD) party and the christian democratic Copei – stayed out of the campaign. The AD issued no recommendations, while Copei staked its bets on the “yes” ballot.

The Copei leadership agreed that the low turnout had only a relative significance in a referendum. But the secretary-general of the party, Donald Ramirez, added that Chavez should interpret “that the people want to move toward change amidst coordination and agreement rather than tension.”

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