Humberto Rodriguez, a 35-year-old refrigerator repairman, says he is a hard-core supporter of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, having voted for him in each of his three successful presidential runs. Rodriguez is also a member of Chávez's recently created socialist party, and sometimes participates in government-led marches to back the president.
But Rodriguez, who lives in the capital of Caracas, admits that he's not sure how he is going to vote in Sunday's referendum that would amend the oil-rich country's constitution and concentrate more power in Chávez' hands. "I believe in Chávez but I'm not convinced that giving him more powers is a good thing to do," Rodriguez says. "I wish he would focus his attention on crime rather than changing the constitution. For me, that is much more important."
Voters like Rodriguez may hold the key on whether Chávez' record of more than a dozen consecutive election victories—including referendums, state, local, and congressional votes—comes to an end. "It's a statistical dead heat right now," says Luis Vicente Leon, who heads the Caracas-based Datanalisis polling agency, which earlier gave opponents a nine-point lead. "It's too close to call."
Progress, or Return to the Past?
The tightness of the race is in marked contrast to Chávez' earlier election battles, which he has won by large margins. Chávez is seeking voter approval for 69 amendments to the country's 1999 constitution he helped draft. Stoking voter unease are proposals that would abolish current term limits for presidents, end the autonomy of the central bank, and overhaul the country's military, giving more power to a civilian reserve created by Chávez. The amendments would also reduce the workweek by 25%, grant the President special powers during emergencies, and create communal property, a measure that opponents fear would be used to curb private ownership in the future.
While Chávez says the changes are needed to deepen the country's socialist revolution and end poverty and long-seated inequalities, opponents claim that the measures would undermine Venezuela's democratic and capitalist foundations, and allow Chávez to create a state styled on communist Cuba if passed.
Threatens to Step Down if Defeated
Results are expected to be released late Sunday night or early Monday morning. "This vote is a defining moment in Chávez' presidency," says Susan Purcell, head of the University of Miami's Center for Hemispheric Policy. "And I don't think he's going to accept any defeat."
The President, who was first elected in 1998, may be aware of the dangers he faces, analysts said. After first campaigning on the reforms themselves, Chávez has increasingly portrayed the referendum as a vote on his presidency, even threatening to resign if he is defeated—a threat no one believes. "Chávez has drawn a line in the sand, equating the referendum to a plebiscite on his rule," says Patrick Esteruelas, an analyst with New York based Eurasia Group, who believes the former military man will pull out a victory, even if he has to resort to fraud.
The possibility of Chávez pulling out all the stops is real, given how close the vote will be. Opponents have mounted a strong grassroots campaign, spearheaded by university students, analysts say. Students have repeatedly held protests and marches against the referendum, including one Thursday that drew more than 500,000 in Caracas.
Widespread Voices of Dissent
They have also been joined by former Chávez allies, including ex-Defense Minister Raul Baduel, who was instrumental in defeating a short-lived coup against the President in 2002, and Chávez' former wife, Maria Isabel Rodriguez, who has called the reforms a threat to the country's democracy.
Chávez has also been hurt by the defection of the Podemos political party, which holds two state governorships and seven seats in the assembly. Although continuing to profess allegiance to Chávez, Podemos has attacked the reforms as concentrating too much power in the President's hands.
Still, Chávez has substantial advantages, Leon says. "He can tap government resources to mobilize his supporters." Chávez has spent lavishly on government subsidies, trying to persuade wavering voters. Red and white placards promoting passage of the reforms are plastered throughout the country, while state TV stations have lavished hours of coverage on Chávez as he has barnstormed throughout the country. By contrast, the opposition is poorly funded and divided, and has largely been ignored by government TV.
Economy Showing Signs of Stress
Chávez, who continues to predict a victory of up to 20 percentage points, will also be helped by the lack of international monitors. Unlike previous elections, neither the European Union nor the Organization of American States was invited to send election observers.
The vote is coming just as the Venezuelan economy is starting to show signs of stress under Chávez' economic policies. Although the economy grew 8.4% for the first nine months, much of that has been due to record oil income allowing the government to boost spending, which has in turn fueled an import boom.
Fears about Chávez and his economic policies—including a plan to shave three zeros off the currency come Jan. 1—have undermined business confidence. Although the bolivar is pegged at 2,150 to the dollar as part of the country's currency controls, the black-market rate is about 5,900 to the dollar. Many businesspeople have no recourse but to buy dollars on the black market for imports not deemed essential by the country's exchange agency, whose approval is necessary for buying dollars at the official rate.
Food Comes First
That has led to soaring inflation as well as food shortages, especially as Venezuela imports about 70% of the food it consumes. Stores throughout the capital sport "No Milk" signs, and eggs, cooking oil, poultry, and sugar are also in short supply.
Although the government blames speculators for the shortages, not everyone is convinced. "Why don't we have milk?" says Alexandra Roman, a 23-year-old housewife who voted for Chávez for President in 2006 but plans to vote against the referendum. "This is ridiculous. He wants more powers and he can't even ensure that we have milk."