Friday 1 February 2008

Six million signatures for constitutional reform

by Federico Fuentes 17 January 2009 from Green Left Weekly Around 6 million signatures, in support of a referendum to amend Venezuela’s constitution and allow all elected public officials to stand for re-election after two terms, were handed over to the National Assembly on January 16. Such an amendment would allow current president, Hugo Chavez, to stand for re-election in 2012. Under the constitution adopted in 1999, officials may only be re-elected once — as Chavez was in 2006. The massive push to collect signatures was just the first phase of the campaign launched by the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) that will culminate in a referendum, to be held on February 15. The number of signatures far surpassed that required by the constitution to convoke such a referendum by popular mandate. For expediency purposes however, the signatures will be used to support the National Assembly’s bill to convoke the referendum, and submitted together to the National Electoral Court. According to Venezuela’s constitution — one of the most democratic in the world — referendums to reform or amend the constitution can be convoked either directly by the executive power (as was the case in the December 2007 referendum), by the National Assembly or by collecting the signatures of 15% of those registered on the national electoral roll. While initial proposed amendment only granted the possibility to indefinite re-election to the presidency, it will now cover all elected public positions. As result, if the amendment passes, only the popular vote will decide who fills elected positions at all levels. Chavez was first elected president in 1998 on an anti-neoliberal platform. Shortly afterwards, a constituent assembly was organised to draft a new constitution, which was subsequently approved by a large majority in a referendum. Fresh national elections were held in 2000 under the new constitution, with Chavez again winning the presidency. While combatting a right-wing offensive aimed at overthrowing him, Chavez set about make a reality his conviction that “the only way to get rid of poverty is by giving power to the people”. This was done by drawing the people into the organising and running of the government-funded social missions that seek to tackle poverty by providing free education and healthcare. These missions now number more than 30, and include programs relating to the environment, electricity and housing, among others. Ironically using the democratic measures enshrined in the new constitution, the right-wing opposition initiated a referendum seeking to have Chavez recalled in 2004. Under the constitution, a referendum to recall any elected official can be held from half-way through their mandate if 20% of their electors sign a petition calling for it. Chavez’s mandate was reaffirmed with nearly 5 million votes (almost 60%) against recalling him. He was re-elected in December 2006 with a record 7.3 million votes (nearly 63%) on a clear platform of pushing the Bolivarian revolution towards socialism. When Chavez pushed proposals for wide-ranging reforms to the constitution in December 2007, the proposals were narrowly defeated in the referendum. As one of the defeated reforms was to allow for no term limits for re-election to the presidency, the possibility of Chavez standing again when his current term finishes in 2012 was blocked. The opposition has made much of the fact that the proposed removal of term limits has already been defeated, however the often confusing 69 proposed changes in 2007 were presented to voters in two blocs, meaning voters could not accept or reject individual reform proposals but only the package as a whole. All polls indicate that Chavez, the indisputable leader of the Bolivarian revolution that has resulted in poverty rates halving, would easily win elections held today. Supporters of the revolution argue that it would be a denial of democratic rights for the Venezuelan people to be unable to elect their desired candidate. The push to amend the constitution comes on the back of the November 23 regional elections, where the PSUV won 17 out of 22 governorship races. Nationally, the PSUV and allied parties won by a large majority of votes (5.5 million to 4 million for the opposition). However, the right wing succeeded in securing some important victories in the most populated states. Along with some of the key governorships surrounding the capital (Miranda, Carabobo) and the Greater Caracas municipality, the opposition also won in states bordering Colombia (Zulia, Tachira) — the site of increasing right-wing paramilitary activity. Speaking of the result and the campaign for the constitutional amendment on his weekly program Alo Presidente, Chavez recalled on December 22 how he had warned prior to the election that the opposition was going to try and do everything possible to win these positions in order to “come after Chavez”. After winning these positions, the opposition evicted activists from spaces used for community organising and social missions — such as the free healthcare provided by Cuban doctors. That is why it was necessary to “launch a rapid counterattack: the amendment”, Chavez declared.

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