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Chavez comes of age with electoral defeat

Critics have accused Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez of ruling in a "dictatorial" fashion, and few dared to imagine what could happen if he lost one of his frequent dates at the polls.

world Updated: Dec 05, 2007 23:01 IST

Critics have accused Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez of ruling in a "dictatorial" fashion, and few dared to imagine what could happen if he lost one of his frequent dates at the polls.

But precisely that happened Sunday as a constitutional reform proposed by Chavez — who had in recent days talked of it as a plebiscite on his own mandate — was rejected by a narrow margin, with nearly 51 percent of the votes against.

The reforms would have formalised a socialist form of government and strengthened Chavez's hold on power, allowing the unlimited re-election of the president, lengthening the presidential term — from six to seven years — and ending Central Bank autonomy.

Electoral authorities waited more than eight hours to announce the "irreversible" defeat of the constitutional reform proposal, and Chavez was then quick to admit his loss.

"We respect the rules of the game. We have said so," Chavez said. He said respect for the rules has also marked his path in the past. However, this has not always been obvious.

The controversial left-wing populist led a failed military coup in 1992, before becoming Venezuelan president on Feb 3, 1999 through democratic elections following the prevailing rules. Since then, he had won two more presidential elections, a referendum on a new constitution and a recall vote, always with more than 60 per cent of the vote.

There had been many allegations of fraud, but they had never been substantiated. And he had never been defeated at the polls.

Chavez is currently ruling by decree, and over the past year he has nationalised large portions of the energy industry of the world's fifth-largest crude oil exporter. He also has complete control of the country's National Assembly, after the opposition boycotted legislative elections.

It was not immediately apparent how Chavez — who combines a broad power base among the poorest citizens of a highly-polarized country with an abundant budget based on Venezuela's oil income and an undoubted love of power —would take defeat at the polls.

As things turned out, his "21st century socialism" appeared to come of age as a democratic form of government in Sunday's defeat. The political style based on Chavez's popularity had reshaped the Venezuelan opposition like a bulldozer, but appeared to stop short, as it should, in the face of rejection at the polls.