Political tensions are rising again in Venezuela. In early November, government authorities seized weapons that President Hugo Chávez claimed were intended for an attempted coup against his government. Then, Chavez threatened to close down the country's private television stations to "ensure peace." And Chavez has accused the CIA, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, and "fascist" local rivals of conspiring to topple him.
What's rattling the populist President? Most likely, a development that is neither secretive nor illegal: On Nov. 28, Chávez' chief opponents -- a group of five politicians backed by business, labor, and the private media -- will launch a four-day drive to get voters to sign a petition demanding a recall referendum on Chávez' presidency. Their pitch: It's time to dump a leader they accuse of trashing the economy and gutting democratic institutions. If the opposition collects the signatures of 2.4 million voters, or 20% of the electorate, the National Electoral Council (CNE) is expected to schedule a referendum for April. Such a vote is allowed under the country's constitution. If Chávez loses, he would have to resign three years before his term ends, and new presidential elections would be held.
The push for a refer-endum within the constitution's framework marks a strategy change for Chávez' opponents. Earlier, in 2002, military and business leaders staged a coup that failed within two days. Then last December, labor unions launched a national strike aimed at forcing Chávez to resign or agree to an immediate vote on his rule, which the constitution prohibited before August, 2003. He again outlasted his opponents, although the turmoil caused the economy to shrink 8.9% last year, and a 10.7% contraction is expected this year. By playing by the rules this time, opposition forces are competing with Chávez for the moral high ground. Most observers dismiss his conspiracy allegations. And the CNE aims to ensure a transparent signature drive. "We're on the right path," says the council's president, Francisco Carrasquero.
Chávez is scrambling to counter the opposition's moves. He has ominously warned public sector workers and soldiers that if they sign the petition "their names will be recorded forever." He's also wooing voters by channeling new funds into subsidized food stores and other social projects. Chávez' popularity rating, which went from 80% in 1999 to 30% in June, has crept back up to 35%. That may not be enough to stop his opponents. Most analysts are betting the petition's sponsors will get the required 2.4 million signatures. "The people are feeling the economic crunch and want to see a change," says Steven Ellner, professor of political economy at Venezuela's Universidad de Oriente. Unemployment is 20%, while crime is soaring.
Opposition leaders are hoping for a resounding victory. If they collect well over the threshold number of names, "the President will be a lame duck," says Henrique Salas Römer, an opposition presidential contender. But Chávez may not go easily even if a recall referendum were to win. The danger remains that his supporters and opponents alike could take to the streets -- and that Chávez could declare a state of emergency. Venezuela's political struggle is far from over.
By Stephen Ixer in Caracas
Edited by Rose Brady