Down but not out in Caracas

There's no doubt that Hugo Chávez's first poll defeat in Venezuela in nine years came as a shock. All yesterday afternoon, private government exit polls predicted a 6-8 point lead for the 'yes' camp in the country's second constitutional referendum in eight years.

At the Miraflores presidential palace in Caracas last night, the mood of confidence and celebration gradually evaporated as the evening wore on and the expected results failed to materialise. When the leader of the nine-year-old "Bolivarian revolution" appeared at 1.30am to concede the narrowest of victories to the opposition in a dignified performance, the sense of confounded expectation in the room - packed with ministers, activists and journalists - was palpable.

But although last night's rejection was clearly a setback for Chávez and his increasingly innovative attempt to create a new kind of social alternative in the oil-rich Latin American state, it is very far from being any kind of crushing defeat.

The constitutional reform - which would have allowed Chávez to stand again as president after his second term expires in 2012, formalised Venezuela as a socialist state, entrenched direct democracy and introduced a 36-hour working week along with a string of other changes - was knocked back by a slender margin: 50.7 per cent to 49.3 per cent. 'Por ahora,' as Chávez said in his early hours address: 'for now.'

A combination of fear about what the reforms might mean in practice, over-confidence by the Chavista movement, a powerful and mendacious propaganda campaign (including claims that children would be taken from their parents and private homes nationalised), discontent over continuing high levels of corruption and crime and a lack of clear identification by many Chávez supporters with the reform all evidently played their part.
Crucially, it was the abstention of three million voters who backed Chávez in last year's presidential election that lost the vote, rather than any significant advance by the opposition, which stayed stuck at roughly the same level of support.

But the charismatic Venezuelan president remains firmly in power, with a commanding level of public support and control of the national assembly. With the significant exception of his right to stand in future presidential elections, most of the other progressive social reforms contained in yesterday's referendum package can be legislated for without constitutional authorisation.

Perhaps most significantly for a better international understanding of what is actually going on in Venezuela, yesterday's result must surely discredit the canard that the country is somehow slipping into authoritarian or even dictatorial rule. It is clearly doing nothing of the sort. The referendum was a convincing display of democracy in action - though doubtless if the margin of victory had been the other way round, the US-backed opposition would have cried foul and swathes of the western media would have accused Chávez of imposing a dictatorship.

I visited over half a dozen polling stations yesterday in the state of Vargas north-east of Caracas and in the city itself and the process seemed if anything more impressively run than in Britain - with opposition monitors everywhere declaring themselves satisfied with the transparency and integrity of the process.

Nevertheless, the risk must now be that voices within the Chavista coalition calling for slower and less radical reforms will now be strengthened as a result of the result.

The revolutionary process underway in Venezuela has delivered remarkable social achievements, on the back of rising oil prices, in health, education, poverty reduction, democratic participation, socialisation of land and property and national independence. If those advances were to be halted or reversed, it would be a loss whose significance would go far beyond Venezuela's borders. But judging by Chávez's comments and commitments made in the early hours of this morning, there is no mood for turning back.


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