Chavez suffers major constitutional setback

While the defeat of the Venezuelan referendum has re-energised the right, Chavez's constitutional proposals were, despite his claims to the contrary, not designed to empower workers, writes Nick Rogers

On Sunday December 2 Hugo Chavez suffered his first ever electoral setback when proposed changes to the Venezuela's constitution were narrowly defeated. Chavez may only have lost the referendum by 200,000 votes, but for a politician used to majorities in excess of 60%, the rejection may mark a turning point in the course of the 'Bolivarian revolution'.

Almost to the year, on December 3 2006, Chavez was elected for a second presidential term with 63% of votes cast.[1] He persuaded 7.1 million supporters to enter the polling booth, his opponent receiving just 4.4 million votes. A year later those voting 'no' to Chavez's proposals in the referendum numbered 4.5 million. Compared with the year before, the opposition to Chavez had rallied just 100,000 extra voters. Yet, with an abstention rate of 44%, the 'yes' campaign garnered only 4.3 million votes - 49.3% of those cast. Somehow, some 2.8 million Venezuelans who voted Chavez in as president had absented themselves from the latest battle against the rightwing and middle class opposition.

As recently as a few months ago - before the details of the proposals were spelt out - opinion polls showed 70%-plus likely to back Chavez. Remarkably, between April and June this year 5.7 million people registered to join his United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) - 1.4 million more than were prepared to support the constitutional proposals.

In post mortems since a sombre Chavez conceded defeat "for now", his supporters in Venezuela and internationally have developed the proposition that the reform proposals were rushed too quickly through the national assembly and the referendum process initiated with insufficient time for explanation and discussion. The 1999 constitution of the new fifth republic was only adopted in a referendum after the election of a constitutional assembly and a nationwide debate. The current proposals were formulated by a commission appointed by Chavez before being presented to the national assembly. The assembly debated the proposals and doubled the number of amendments. Chavez himself has suggested the timing of the referendum campaign was wrong. Some on the left have even hinted that over-reliance on a single leader may be an error.[2] What few are prepared to acknowledge, however, is that the main thrust of the proposals were thoroughly flawed from a democratic and socialist perspective.

The majority of left commentators have focused on the insertion of references to 'socialism' into the constitution, the new role for communal councils, the introduction of a maximum 36-hour week (down from 44 hours), the creation of a social security fund for the self-employed, the lowering of the voting age to 16 and the prescription of gender balance for candidates to elected office. But hardly any have questioned whether the strengthening of presidential powers - integral to many of the clauses that Venezuelans voted on - is compatible with an advance towards socialism.

Any of the social measures proposed for the constitution can be passed as legislation by a national assembly dominated by supporters of Chavez. What is more, the national assembly has already granted Chavez the power to legislate by decree in 11 broad areas of policy.[3] It is only the changes in the formal balance of political power that require constitutional amendments. (Of course, most of the left today suffers from a myopic economism that cannot see that political and state structures are central to the struggle for socialism - even when it is a state's 'constitution' that is explicitly at the heart of a current political battle.)

Everyone knows that the constitutional proposals removed the restriction on the number of consecutive terms that any individual may serve as president - although retaining term limits for other elected posts. The constitution that had been adopted in 1999 increased the previous single-term limit to two terms. Under that constitution Chavez is not permitted to stand in the presidential elections scheduled for December 2012 and will have to surrender office in January 2013.

But the proposals did much more than that.[4] The presidential term was increased from six years to seven. Again the 1999 constitution had already increased the presidential term from five years to six. When the watch-word is supposedly grassroots democracy, what possible justification can there be for such a lengthy term for any elected position? Only in France have presidents served for as long as seven years (until 2000, when the term was reduced to five years). But then perhaps Chavez's concept of a fifth republic is more than a little influenced by the presidentialism ('Bonapartism' even) of de Gaulle's fifth republic.

The new presidential powers voted down on December 2 included the right to redraw the country's internal political boundaries. There was a degree of ambiguity over the wording - in fact much of the phraseology in the current constitution, as well as in the defeated proposals, tends to obscure rather than clarify meaning.

The opposition took this to mean that Chavez could arbitrarily abolish, create and gerrymander the Venezuela's structure of regional states - undermining the autonomous authority of state governors. Others suggest that these powers extended only to redrawing the boundaries of municipal authorities - currently under the control of state governors. Either way, that is an awful lot of power concentrated in the hands of one person. Chavez has spoken of the threat of the state governors becoming 'regional caudillos'. A genuine enough tendency of mayoral and gubernatorial political structures, but equally the case for presidential systems.

Under the proposals the president was to have the responsibility for promoting officers within the armed forces, and the right to administer Venezuela's international reserves in coordination with the central bank - which in turn was stripped of its independence. No socialist would object to the armed forces and key tools of economic policy being brought under political control, but surely some degree of broad political accountability is called for? Yet another blind spot in much of the commentary on the left.

The constitution that remains in place allows the president to appoint and remove the vice-president and all cabinet ministers and preside over cabinet meetings (article 242 describes ministers as "direct dependencies of the president of the republic"). A vote of three-fifths of the national assembly is required to remove a minister or the vice-president. The vice-president does not exercise a lot of autonomous power. Just about the only area of vice-presidential responsibility independent of the president is the right to preside over the 'federal government council' - a consultative body bringing together the different arms of government. The defeated proposals allocated this role to the president, who would have been able to create as many vice-presidents as deemed necessary.

A very positive feature of the current constitution is the right given to the electors to recall elected officials and to initiate constitutional reform processes. Indeed Chavez is suggesting that this may be one avenue to getting elements of his proposals into the constitution. Yet the proposals put to the vote on December 2 sought to make it much more difficult for this to happen. The bar set for petitions proposing that constitutional reforms be put to the vote was to be raised from 15% to 25% of registered voters. A citizen-initiated constitutional assembly was to require 30% (rather than 15%), while the requirement for petitions calling for a recall vote was to be raised from 20% to 30% of registered voters. To be successful a recall vote would require a minimum 40% turnout - in addition to the current stipulation that votes against a candidate in a recall referendum must exceed the votes the candidate received when elected. It was the national assembly which inserted these clauses. No doubt to block the fairly frequent recall petitions organised against city mayors and state governors. Chavez himself faced and defeated a recall election in 2004.

Considerable controversy centred on changes to the provisions around the declaration of states of emergency. These were no longer to require the approval of the supreme court, but just that of the national assembly, and they no longer were restricted to a maximum of 180 days, but could last as long as the circumstance that led to the calling of the state of emergency were deemed to persist. The right to information and the right to due process were no longer protected.

You would think the majority of leftists would baulk at quite so stark an accretion of power around the post of the presidency. Even Chavez's biggest fans surely conceive of the possibility that someone other than Chavez may one day enter the presidency - a post now with immense political power. Gregory Wilpert, editor of the informative website Venezuela Analysis, while accepting that "there are negative or not-so-good aspects of the reform", claims that "the Venezuelan president, even after the reforms, still does not have as much institutional power as the US president".[5]

Appointing cabinet members without congressional approval? The option of ruling by decree? Direct control of promotions within the armed forces? A seven-year term of office? That appears to be a more powerful post than the American presidency. But then is not the whole point of the communal councils and other features of what is described as participatory democracy supposed to be the creation of a new type of democracy? Should not 21st century socialism be seeking to secure ever more profound democratic advances? Appealing to the flawed model of US democracy indicates a certain lack of confidence in Chavez's project.

The argument for acceding to yet more powers for a Chavez presidency is that Chavez can serve as a political instrument for clearing away bureaucratic road blocks to democratic and socialist advance. But where is the role for the independent action of the working class? Even the communal councils that have sprung into existence under the tutelage of Chavez represent a top-down process similar to most political developments over the last nine years. Under the defeated constitutional proposals they were to have a role in many areas of political life alongside existing political structures, but were allocated only 5% of the national budget. The suspicion must arise that the communal councils can be used to challenge and undermine local political figures with whom Chavez had fallen out, but will have insufficient means to act independently.

Were these kinds of considerations the reason why so many of those who have formerly identified themselves with Chavez did not turn out on December 2? In part. Journalists report a general lack of enthusiasm for many of the new presidential powers.

Also, elements of the Chavez coalition have fractured in recent months. Podemos, one of three government parties that have resisted submerging themselves in the PSUV, has effectively become the official opposition in a national assembly that the right boycotted. Podemos has replaced Accion Democratica - the old representative of the 'social democratic' wing of Venezuela's oligarchy - as Venezuela's representative in the Socialist International. Podemos campaigned against the constitutional proposals. More serious for Chavez was the defection of his long-time friend and ally, retired general Raul Baduel, defence minister until July. Baduel, who has been a friend since the 1970s and was instrumental in returning Chavez to power after the coup of 2002, denounced the proposed changes to the constitution as tantamount to a coup.

In recent months shortages of basic food stuffs - milk, sugar, eggs, cooking oil and red meat - have appeared in the state-subsidised popular markets (that first came into existence during the lock-out of 2002-03). Economists blame price controls for making it unprofitable to produce these products - although the shortages have proven to serve a very useful political end. Venezuela's 21% inflation rate is Latin America's highest. Venezuela's currency, the bolivar, is trading on the parallel black market at 30% below the official rate, when just two years ago the two rates were at close to parity. Frustration with the economic situation was frequently cited in interviews by members of Venezuela's poor as a prime reason for abstaining on December 2.

There are very real dangers in this situation. Those who have broken with the Chavez camp in the run-up to the election are primarily on the moderate wing of the Chavez movement. They might drag Chavez to the right. Baduel has articulated concerns about moves that some in the military see as undermining the professionalism of their institution. Anti-Chavez leaflets were reported to be circulating within some barracks. Chavez's power base has always been the army. If this fractures, the possibility of another coup is placed on the table.

The political right will be re-energised by the referendum result. Demonstrations by students from the richer universities - that began with protests against the closing down of the RCTV television station earlier this year and sometimes turned violent - played a key role in mobilising the demoralised forces of the rightwing opposition to Chavez.

What is lacking from the mix of social forces is a powerful working class movement able to articulate its own interests. The majority of the independent trade union, the UNT, has opted to enter the PSUV. Those forces that began the process of setting up the Party of Revolution and Socialism two years ago have also split over the question of whether to join the PSUV or not. Orlando Chirono, the leader of the largest faction within the UNT, has resisted the blandishments of the PSUV. He called for a boycott of the referendum.

It is only by building a strong, independent working class political voice that is able to raise the full range of working class demands - including the abolition of the presidential political system and a democratic Venezuela within a democratic South American federation - that a genuine socialism for the 21st century will become a possibility.


1. See N Rogers, ‘Chavez landslide’ Weekly Worker December 7  2006.

2. T Ali, ‘Venezuela after the referendum’, December 3  2007, www.venezuelaanalysis.com/analysis/2952.

3. See N Rogers, ‘All power to Chavez?’ Weekly Worker August 2  2007.

4. G Wilpert, ‘Venezuela’s constitutional reform: an article-by-article summary’, November 23  2007, www.venezuelaanalysis.com/analysis/2889.

5. G Wilpert, ‘Making sense of Venezuela’s constitutional reform’, December 1  2007, www.venezuelaanalysis.com/analysis/2943.