Constitutional controversy saps credibility

Por Venezuela Real - 18 de Octubre, 2007, 13:21, Categoría: Prensa Internacional

Thursday, 18 October 2007

THINK TANK SUBJECT: Mounting opposition to President Hugo Chavez's proposed reform of the 1999 constitution.

SIGNIFICANCE: Political tensions in the country are rising amid vocal domestic and external criticism of the changes, including new reforms controversially added by the National Assembly in recent days. A popular referendum on the changes is scheduled for December 2.

ANALYSIS: In August, President Hugo Chavez took a major political gamble when he presented proposed modifications to 33 articles of the 1999 constitution. Although small in number, the changes imply profound alteration to structures of governance, national institutions and economic policy-making. These are intended to move Venezuela towards becoming a socialist state.

The 1999 constitution permits the president, as well as the National Assembly and a minimum 15% of the general public to propose constitutional reforms. These only pass if approved by the National Assembly and the electorate in a popular referendum. Chavez's manner of introducing the reforms was therefore not in itself controversial. Many of the planned changes were expected and institutionalised existing policy practice and government direction. Chavez also argued that he had a mandate for the changes following his victory in the December 2006 presidential election, in which he outlined his vision of creating a model of 21st Century Socialism.

Constitutional changes. Despite the enormity of the changes, Chavez did not opt to convene a National Constituent Assembly, owing to the small number of articles affected (less than 10%). The government also stressed the 'organic' nature of the reforms, emphasising that the December referendum was a vote for or against the package of measures, not an articleby- article vote.

The proposed changes, which include elimination of presidential term limits; devolution of power to community councils; executive discretion over international reserves; and the merger of the military services into a Bolivarian Popular Militia, have made seamless progress through the Chavista-dominated National Assembly. Criticism was initially limited to pro-Chavez factions, such as the Podemos party, which has 15 seats in the legislature and which opted to abstain from a number of reform deliberations. The response of the wider anti-Chavez opposition movement, which groups parties and organisations politically dominant before Chavez's election in 1998, was muted.

Opposition divided.

The lack of an immediate opposition response contrasted with their traditional pattern of street protests and popular mobilisation against government initiatives. A number of factors hampered the eclectic opposition from issuing an immediate and collective response. Three issues in particular proved problematic:
• Strategic errors. The abstention strategy, intended to delegitimise election results, has weakened the opposition in the past. The decision not to participate in the 2004 National Assembly elections allowed for de facto Chavista control of the legislature.
• Engaging the electorate. A September poll by Hinterlaces showed that although 45% of respondents opposed the reforms, only half of these were prepared to vote against the changes in the referendum. By contrast, 31% of the 35% in favour of the changes planned to vote.
• Pursuing judicial relief. Some opposition sectors wanted to press for a ruling on the constitutionality of the process through reference to Article 347 of the 1999 Constitution -- which states that the creation of a new juridical order can only be approved by convening a Constituent Assembly -- or Article 25, which states that any encroachment on the rights guaranteed in the current constitution is null and void. Others wanted to challenge specific proposed articles -- for example, the lifting of term limits.

The opposition was also marginalised by the publicity given to senior opposition figures, whose sweeping condemnation of the reforms as fascist, authoritarian and demagogic failed to connect with the sizeable sector of the electorate neither for nor against Chavez.

Increasing coherence. Yet over recent weeks, the opposition campaign has gained traction, despite internal divisions. Three factors have been decisive:
• A 'legislative coup' by the National Assembly. The select committee responsible for reviewing the 33 changes this week added an additional 24 reforms. While these include progressive measures in areas such as gay rights, they also include more controversial changes. These include modifications to Article 153 on foreign relations, which would allow Venezuela to pursue regional integration by "founding Republics to consolidate the structural projects in the region"; Article 338, which would extend the duration of declared states of emergency from 30 days to 180 days; and Article 339, which would remove the requirement that the executive file for a state of emergency with the Supreme Court. This raises serious concern as to due process and political freedoms in the country if approved.
• External support. The opposition has been boosted by criticism of the planned reforms by high profile organisations such as Human Rights Watch and the Inter-American Press Association. Much publicity has also been given to negative statements by former Bolivian President Jorge Quiroga and Pedro Nikken, former president of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. In recent days, opposition leader Manuel Rosales met US Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Tom Shannon, an event interpreted as a diplomatic nod in support of the opposition from Washington.
• Other controversial measures. The government has introduced other controversial domestic and foreign policies intended to advance socialism, such as planned changes to the national education curriculum, new 'vice' taxes on imported cigarettes and alcohol and the signing of 14 new commercial agreements with Cuba.

Conflict ahead.

The actions of the National Assembly have reinforced opposition and intra-Chavista claims that the constitutional reform process is not following procedure and that the changes undermine democracy. Street protests in favour of delaying the referendum and against the changes are expected over the coming weeks. These will join former government allies such as Podemos with unlikely allies in the opposition. By welding the constitutional reform issue onto broader international concerns as to freedom of speech in Venezuela and private property rights (after renationalisations in the telecommunications, electricity and hydrocarbons sectors), the opposition has successfully mobilised international opinion against the reforms.

However, this strategy has three shortcomings:
• The opposition has once again courted international rather than domestic opinion. If the reform proposals are to be defeated constitutionally, then a balanced and coherent message has to be delivered to the Venezuelan electorate.
• Chavez has always responded to international hostility by radicalising his project, deepening his anti-US rhetoric and accelerating regional integration plans. In this context, the international community -- and particularly the United States -- will only be effective if it delivers nuanced responses that reflect the immediate issues, rather than seeking to isolate Chavez and legitimise opposition actions that might lead to violent conflict. 5
• Anti-Chavistas are once again taking to the streets. Recourse to this type of action has previously been destablising and unsuccessful. More problematically, it sends a message to voters that the opposition has not changed.

CONCLUSION: The interventions by the National Assembly may have seriously eroded the credibility of Chavez's constitutional reform project. His decision not to convene a Constitutional Assembly will weaken the legitimacy of the planned changes.onstitutional Assembly will weaken the
legitimacy of the planned changes.

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