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Term limits, democracy and the February 15 referendum

On February 15, an amendment to Venezuela’s constitution will be voted on that proposes to remove limits on the number of times an elected official can stand for election to a public office. If passed, it would allow President Hugo Chavez to stand in the presidential elections in 2012.

Venezuela’s right-wing opposition misleadingly characterises the proposed reform as “indefinite re-election”, implying that the vote is about whether or not to make Chavez “president for life”.

In fact, all the amendment would do is remove existing restrictions on standing for election. Chavez or any other incumbent would still be required to actually win the popular vote.

As well, Venezuela’s constitution includes the profoundly democratic right to hold a referendum on whether or not to recall any elected official from halfway through their term if 20% of electors sign a petition calling for one. The opposition called a recall referendum on Chavez in 2004, which Chavez won.

Many states throughout the world (including Australia) do not have term limits for their heads of state without this being considered anti-democratic.

Chavez has repeatedly stressed that he does “not have any plan to be president for life. That would be a violation of the constitution [and also] the political system. That would be the end of alternative governments.”

The referendum has become the latest battle in Venezuela’s intense class struggle. The Bolivarian revolution led by Chavez, which has sought to implement policies to empower the poor that have resulted in poverty rates halving, has been met by powerful resistance from the old elite, backed by the US government, and much of the middle class.

The campaign around the referendum has involved large rallies by supporters of the revolution, with 100,000 grassroots committees established to campaign for a “yes” vote. The “no” campaign has been marked by the violent protests and riots by middle-class students that have become a hallmark of the opposition.

The question of term limits can only be understood in the context of Venezuela’s current situation. Venezuela is currently experiencing a revolutionary upheaval, central to which has been, in the words of Chavez, the need for “the sovereign people [to] transform itself into the object and the subject of power.”

The desperate actions of the Venezuelan oligarchy in response to the initial reforms implemented by the Chavez government, including a failed military coup and bosses’ lock-out in 2002 and 2003, made it clear that a profound and far-reaching transformation of the entire society from the bottom up was required for the process of change to advance. The massive mobilisations of the poor and workers to defeat the elite’s attempts to overthrow the Chavez government has revealed that the motor-force of the process is the people themselves.

In the 10 years since Chavez was first sworn in as president, millions of people have become involved in politics for the first time and are running the social missions (community based social programs) and other organisations from the ground up. Thousands of communal councils, grassroots bodies run democratically by groups of up to 400 families, are emerging as the base of popular power. These are promoted as potential building blocks for a new democratic and decentralised state.

Also, the mass-based United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), with 5.8 million aspiring members, has emerged as the political instrument that can unite the previously fragmented revolutionary movement.

It has been the personal leadership role of Chavez — with his unique connection to the impoverished majority — that has been crucial to inspiring and mobilising millions. Chavez’s role has also been essential to maintaining unity between the often fragmented forces for progressive change.

Chavez’s role transcends Venezuela’s borders, as he has sought both to promote pro-people integration in the region and used international forum’s to give voice to the world’s oppressed. This has brought Chavez into confrontation with US imperialism, however such actions have given Chavez massive moral authority.

US imperialism and its local agents in Venezuela are fully aware of the dangers to their economic and political interests of allowing the revolutionary process to develop and create a collective leadership with the authority currently invested in Chavez. This - not supposed concerns about democracy - explains the vehemence of the “no” campaign for the February 15 referendum.

The opposition’s claim to oppose the constitution amendment on the grounds of democratic principles is laughable given that in 2002 they kidnapped the elected government and installed one of Venezuela’s richest men as president — before a mass uprising restored Chavez.

The Venezuelan people have the right to determine their political system and decide for themselves who can or cannot stand for election — this right to self-determination is the main democratic principle at stake in the February 15 referendum.

Based on an article by Chris Kerr in Caracas. See http://www.greenleft.org.au/2009/782/40274.

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