by Humberto Marquez
(IPS) CARACAS -- The leadership of Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez and his dream of a revolution in which he has invoked independence hero Simon Bolívar will be put to the test on Aug. 15, the day of a referendum that will either remove him from office or confirm his mandate.
The referendum "will be the mother of all battles, because it will be an outright clash of two visions for the country and two power blocs: the traditional parties that held power from 1958 to 1998, and the previously excluded groups that found a place with Chavez at the head," says Samuel Moncada, a Chavez supporter and director of the history school at the Central University in Caracas.
Venezuela is about to see "what could be the dirtiest electoral campaign in national history, and there will be charges of corruption from both sides, reports of fraud, sabotage and street violence, and even threats of foreign intervention," Moncada said in an IPS interview.
"What is at stake is not a simple vote, but rather two blocs' struggle for power," he said.
Political analyst Alberto Garrido, author of a dozen books about Chavez, thinks the president is "testing an electoral route to hone his 'Bolivarian' revolution, but the unknown factor is what he'll do if he loses the referendum, that is, whether he will be willing to hand over in a simple referendum a process that he considers historic."
Garrido noted in his conversation with IPS that Chavez has dubbed his referendum campaign "Santa Ines," for the most famous battle of the peasant-led Federal War (1859-1864), in which popular liberal leader Ezequiel Zamora defeated the conservative forces in trench warfare.
After surrendering his front lines, Zamora counterattacked the wearied opposition with a violence that proved overwhelming.
As of April of this year, the leading polling firms -- mainly conservative, like the media -- reported that the anti-Chavez forces were in the lead, but Chavez did maintain 40 percent or more approval ratings. And a third of the nearly 13 million registered voters are considered "neither-nors" -- neither Chavez nor the political opposition.
The National Electoral Council, CNE, has set Aug. 15 as the date for the referendum, just four days before a deadline that anti-Chavez forces have been eyeing since late 2001.
According to the constitution, if Chavez loses the referendum before Aug. 19 -- which marks four years of his six-year term -- a new presidential election must be convened. After Aug. 19, his vice-president, José Vicente Rangel, whom he appointed, would serve out the rest of the term.
To trigger the referendum, the opposition was able to collect 2,541,636 valid signatures, 105,553 more than the minimum required -- 20 percent of the electoral rolls -- as the CNE president, Francisco Carrasquero, announced late Tuesday.
The vote will be automated, with some 19,000 machines distributed amongst voting centres throughout the country, and the electorate is to respond to a simple question -- the wording of which has yet to be determined, said Carrasquero.
The possibility of the referendum was agreed a year ago between the government and the opposition coalition, known as the Democratic Coordinator, to resolve the profound political crisis that began with a day-long general strike in December 2001, included a coup d'état that had Chavez out of office 48 hours, a two-month managerial work stoppage that hit the nation's oil industry hard, lack of discipline amongst the military ranks and several days of street mobilisations, both pro- and anti-Chavez.
Chavez accepted the electoral council's verdict this week and declared his campaign to see his mandate ratified. At a rally Tuesday, he said, "We will obtain twice the votes of the oligarchy, we will get at least five million votes" in the referendum.
The announcement of the referendum coincided with the Assembly of the Organisation of American States (OAS), under way in Quito, where the foreign ministers applauded Venezuela's decision to resolve political tensions through a peaceful, democratic and electoral process.
The new OAS Secretary-General, Miguel Angel Rodriguez, said he is pleased with the result.
Secretary of State Colin Powell told the assembly, "In Venezuela, we commend the people, the government, and the democratic opposition for completing the 'reparos' process -- thr signature verification -- and for their commitment to respecting the results of a timely recall referendum" on Chavez's mandate.
Chavez meanwhile has announced he will respect the outcome of the referendum, "and if I lose I'll step down."
The opposition Democratic Coordinator, which reportedly has received funding from U.S. leaders, who despise Chavez for his populist views and influence on the nation's huge oil industry, complained about the chosen date, having hoped for Aug. 8, and about the automated voting machines, because its members wanted a manual count, fearing fraud in an electronic system.
"In any case, we will have an overwhelming victory because we collected 3.4 million signatures, even though they validated fewer than that, and in the referendum we'll get many more votes because it will be a secret vote and there will be more locations for citizens to express their opinion," Coordinator spokesman Jesús Torrealba told IPS.
Felipe Mujica, another leader of the anti-Chavez coalition that encompasses some 50 parties and civil society groups, warned that the date so close to Aug. 19 "undermines many operational procedures."
According to an Electoral Council technician who spoke on condition of anonymity, the proximity of the referendum to the Aug. 19 cut-off point limits the opposition's manoeuvring room to reject potential measures imposed by the electoral authority, whose five members include three aligned with Chavez.
In the immediate term, Chavez announced he is getting ready to replace the party leadership that supports him with an electoral campaign team.
The Democratic Coordinator is multiplying its meetings in an effort to mobilise the electorate.
Political analyst and former socialist leader Teodoro Petkoff, editor of Tal Cual newspaper, reckons it is "desirable to have an understanding and dialogue so that it is a civilised battle. There is no reason to kill each other. This is not a war of the end of the world."
The U.S.-dominated OAS and the U.S.-based Carter Centre for Peace, headed by former president Jimmy Carter, which have monitored the entire process of signature gathering and validation for the referendum, will maintain their observer missions in Caracas throughout this new phase.
But amongst the pro-Chavez ranks there is resistance against the observer teams having a continued presence.
"They have gone beyond observation and we must review their role," said Oscar Battaglini, one of the five members of the Electoral Council.
June 9, 2004 (http://www.albionmonitor.com) All Rights Reserved. Contact email@example.com for permission to use in any format.
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