Voters on Sunday defeated a package of constitutional reforms that could have indefinitely extended President Hugo Chavez’s grip on power here. It was a shocking electoral loss for the strongman, his first in nine years at the helm.
Voters defeated two ballot measures that would have changed 69 articles in Venezuela’s Constitution, which was rewritten in 1999, the year Chavez took office. Margins were tight on both, with the “no” votes edging the “yes” votes by 50.7% to 49.3% and 51% to 49%.
At a news conference after the National Electoral Council’s release of its official bulletin that declared the results to be “irreversible” at 1:20 a.m. local time, Chavez exhorted his supporters, “Don’t feel sad or weighed down. . . . This was a microscopic difference but with the ‘no’s’ on top.
“I congratulate my opponents for their victory. To use a phrase from February 1992, we’ve fallen short for now,” a reference to Chavez’s admission of defeat after his abortive coup attempt that ended in his imprisonment but that launched his political career.
Some analysts predicted before the results were released -- nine tense hours after balloting ended -- that the loss, in destroying Chavez’s mantle of invincibility, would embolden his domestic opponents. What seems certain is that the defeat will energize the opposition, especially student groups that took to the street to oppose the reforms.
“We’ll continue in the struggle to build socialism within the framework of this constitution,” Chavez said, holding aloft a booklet containing the 1999 constitution.
Chavez said he could have prolonged the tension by demanding continued scrutiny of the votes, but decided to concede defeat to spare the nation possible conflict.
“Those of you who were nervous I wouldn’t recognize the results, you can go home quietly and celebrate.”
Voter turnout was a low 55%, a level analysts thought would never carry opponents to victory.
The vote was closer than any of Chavez’s seven previous nationwide votes dating back to his election to office in December 1998, all of which he won handily. Chavez framed the reforms as critical to deepening his socialist Bolivarian Revolution, which has channeled billions of oil dollars to social outreach programs for free education, healthcare and discount groceries for the poor.
But even Venezuelans living below the poverty line -- the bedrock of Chavez’s power base -- have grown increasingly skeptical about the reforms and disenchanted with Chavez, pollsters said. Ill feeling was being driven by higher prices and scarcities of basic foods, including milk, chicken and beans. Last week, people waited three hours in lines to purchase staples at some government-run Mercal grocery stores.
“The hard Chavez vote has always been a utilitarian vote,” said Jose Antonio Gil Yepes, president of the polling firm Datanalisis. “Although they still feel a personal loyalty to Chavez, those poor voters who always got something from Chavez are getting less.”
Slayings and other crimes have skyrocketed and housing programs have fallen short of Chavez’s grandiose promises. But voters in poor Caracas barrios said their loyalty to Chavez was unswerving.
“I voted for him,” said Freddy Mijares, 32, a bakery employee, after casting a ballot in Plaza Lazaro Cardenas in central Caracas. “For the changes that we have seen and those that are coming.”
Mechanic Enrique Casana, who voted in favor of the reforms at a polling place near the barrio where Chavez cast his ballot, said the president deserved support because “people who before had nothing now have something. . . . The scarcities aren’t his fault. It’s that of people who are hoarding things.”
The most controversial element of the reforms would have extended presidential terms to seven from six years and allowed the president to run for reelection indefinitely.
Currently, the president can be reelected only once. Chavez raised the prospect of perpetual power in a closing campaign speech Friday to tens of thousands of red-shirted supporters on Avenida Bolivar, saying he would remain in office until 2050 or age 95 “if the Venezuelan people ordain it.”
But critics also were concerned about changes that would have expanded the president’s discretionary powers, giving him control of billions of dollars in central bank reserves and enabling him to create new regional and municipal entities ruled by vice presidents whom he would name and whose powers would take precedence over that of elected governors and mayors.
Supporters and opponents alike were expecting Chavez to use the reforms to push through laws strengthening the concepts of communal property in the form of worker-run cooperatives managed collectively by “communal councils.”
But Rafael Simon Jimenez, a historian who once was a Chavez supporter and an assemblyman, spoke for many critics when he described the constitutional reforms as less an ideological document than a political one, a plan designed to concentrate power in the president’s hands.
“Chavez is a man to whom it has never occurred to be an ex-president of Venezuela,” Jimenez said in an interview Sunday evening.
Chavez’s goal is authoritarian in nature, said Agustin Blanco Munoz, a researcher at Central University of Venezuela who wrote a biography based partially on jailhouse interviews he conducted after Chavez was imprisoned for leading the unsuccessful 1992 coup attempt.
“His model isn’t communism or socialism. It’s a varnish, a cover for a personalist system that exalts Chavez above all else as the caudillo, the new messiah, not the collective society,” Blanco Munoz said.
Before the vote, public opinion firms Datanalisis and Consultores 21 agreed that only a huge voter turnout could turn the tide against Chavez. That’s because turnout in past votes has been significantly higher among pro-Chavez voters than the opposition, meaning a high abstention level would favor a “yes” vote.
Sunday’s vote was the closest since 2004, when Chavez successfully beat back a recall initiative to oust him from office.
In the Friday speech and in a three-hour news conference Saturday, Chavez made little mention of the contents of the proposal, instead pulling on two tried and tested campaign levers: personal loyalty and foreign threats. A vote against the reforms would be tantamount to betrayal of him and the Venezuelan people, he told the tens of thousands of followers amassed on Avenida Bolivar.
To foreign reporters convened at the Miraflores presidential palace Saturday, he said he had become aware of a CIA plan dubbed Operation Tenaza to assassinate him.
He said Venezuela’s dignity was besmirched at the Iberoamerican Summit last month when Spanish King Juan Carlos I told him, “Why don’t you shut up?” and that Spanish banks and other companies could be nationalized unless he got an apology.
“I have a file this thick of Spanish companies in Venezuela and I am reviewing all of them,” Chavez said.
In the run-up to the vote, the Venezuelan leader also had a public spat with Colombian President Alvaro Uribe over the latter’s termination of Chavez’s role in mediating the release of prisoners held by leftist Colombian rebels.