Venezuela: Political Reform or Regime Demise?
Venezuela: Political Reform or Regime Demise?
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  1. Executive Summary

Venezuela: Political Reform or Regime Demise?

President Hugo Chávez faces mounting difficulties at home and abroad. The defeat of constitutional reforms in a December 2007 referendum, a year after re-election, was his worst setback since winning the presidency in 1998.

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Executive Summary

President Hugo Chávez faces mounting difficulties at home and abroad. The defeat of constitutional reforms in a December 2007 referendum, a year after re-election, was his worst setback since winning the presidency in 1998. It was not primarily the divided opposition, which lacks a broad social base, that dealt this blow but the abstention of three million Venezuelans, including many former government supporters. There is growing disenchantment over food shortages, rising inflation, public insecurity and corruption, as well as resistance to Chávez’s push to merge his coalition’s parties into a new United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), and concern about further concentration of power in the president’s hands and his foreign policy, including disputes with Colombia. Only by ending attempts to drastically alter the 1999 constitution is Chávez likely to return Venezuela to democratic stability. If he fails to compromise and govern more transparently and inclusively, November municipal and regional elections could produce a dramatic new setback for his increasingly autocratic “Bolivarian revolution”.

Following his landslide second re-election in December 2006, Chávez sought to accelerate implementation of his “socialism of the XXIst century”. The government-controlled National Assembly (NA) passed an “Enabling Law” (Ley Habilitante), which grants him full legislative powers until the end of July 2008, and he proposed sweeping reform of the 1999 constitution. If approved in the referendum, the latter would have removed limitations on presidential re-election as well as paved the way for centralised education; further politicisation of the military; recentralisation of government through a new territorial and political order; and strengthening of communal councils charged with administering the executive-led social welfare programs (misiones). Attempts to impose decrees without broad discussion in the first half of 2008 sparked strong dissent that forced their withdrawal.

The chavista movement is losing momentum. It has become bureaucratic, corruption is spreading and the government’s management is poor. The president’s social programs are not meeting expectations and have not empowered citizens. In the cities and even in rural areas, where Chávez’s social base has been strongest, dissatisfaction is spreading due to shortages of basic foodstuffs and rising inflation and crime. The PSUV, established in early 2007, is unlikely to help Chávez regain lost support. On the contrary, at the grassroots and regional (state) and local (municipalities) levels, it is perceived as a top-down decision-making structure that reduces any space for political participation not blessed by the president.

The November elections will be a critical test for the Chávez administration and democratic processes in the hemisphere. If the political opposition is to make broad gains and capture several chavista fiefdoms, it must breathe life into the unity pact signed in early 2008, reach consensus on strong single candidates, attract the under-privileged sectors of the electorate and design a convincing national strategy capable of offsetting Chávez’s charisma.

Bogotá/Brussels, 23 July 2008

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