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Venezuela's Chávez bids again for perpetual power

MIAMI — A year after he was rebuffed at the polls, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez is having another go at perpetual re-election.

The fiery socialist recently celebrated his 10th anniversary in power and still has four years left on his current mandate. But he says he needs more time to build his self-styled "21st century socialism" in the oil-rich nation where about 30 percent of the 26 million inhabitants live in poverty.

So voters are being asked to decide in a referendum Sunday that would amend the constitution to eliminate term limits for all elected officials.

Chávez lost a similar referendum in December 2007, 49-51 percent. But he has bounced back and today enjoys a 60 percent personal approval rating.

Polls show a dead heat, with the pro-Chávez campaign holding a slight edge on the referendum. Turnout is expected to be the deciding factor. In 2007, more than 44 percent of voters abstained.

In a seemingly flagrant violation of constitutional norms, Chávez has called on practically every state institution to lend a helping hand in what he considers a patriotic goal.

Government buildings throughout the capital, Caracas, are plastered by "Yes" campaign propaganda. Pro-Chávez rallies are packed with government employees in their uniforms.

A salsa jingle exhorting voters is played ceaselessly in government ministries, as well as on the subway in Caracas. State vehicles also carry Yes stickers, and state-run TV, radio and print media unashamedly back Chávez.

Throughout, the National Electoral Commission has stayed silent. "We're seeing an unbalanced campaign without precedent," said Vicente Díaz, the lone opposition voice on the five-member commission. "Government ministries are openly involved."

While previous Chávez campaigns have blurred the lines between party and state, it has never been so brazen, analysts say. "The abuse of the state isn't being hidden. On the contrary, they seem to want to show it," said the country's top pollster, Luis Vicente León, director of Datanalisis.

Critics say the wordy referendum is deceptive and does not explicitly refer to lifting term limits, currently two consecutive terms.

The 75-word question asks voters to modify five articles of the constitution "to increase the political rights of the people." The amendment would not remove the requirement for regular holding of elections.

Some of Chávez's opponents question the legitimacy of the referendum, saying the constitution does not permit a referendum to be presented twice. Chávez got around this by arguing that the 2007 vote was a vote on a package of 69 constitutional "reforms." Sunday's diluted referendum is solely about term limits and is being defined as a constitutional amendment.

The amendment would also lift term limits for all political posts, not just the presidency. "It's just consummate Chávez. He's using every trick he knows," said Michael Shifter, a Venezuela expert at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, D.C.

One reason given for the failure of the 2007 referendum is that it sought only to lift term limits for the president, a turn-off for some of Chávez's political allies. This time Chávez's political party, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela, is firmly behind the president.

Chávez remains popular among poor Venezuelans who recall decades of political marginalization and corruption before "Comandante Hugo" came along in 1998. But massive social spending, on the back of record oil revenue, is offset by government corruption and rising crime.

And now, after five years of strong growth, the economy is suffering as oil prices plunge. To compensate, perhaps, the government has sought to stir up nationalist sentiment behind the Yes campaign. Re-election is necessary to protect Venezuela from imperialist Yankee designs, Chávez tells rallies, even though his old nemesis, George Bush, is now out of office.

At one big rally last week opponents wore "No Is No," T-shirts as a reminder of the 2007 referendum. But the opposition campaign has been hamstrung by the refusal of local pro-Chávez authorities to issue permits for student protest marches, which played a big role in the 2007 vote.

The students have taken to handing out fliers with a quote from Venezuela's legendary independence leader, Simón Bolívar, who is revered by Chávez. In 1819 Bolívar wrote: "Nothing is as dangerous as letting the same citizen remain in power for a long time."

Venezuela's Chávez bids again for perpetual power 02/13/09 [Last modified: Saturday, February 14, 2009 12:15am]
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