* Having survived a coup plot and a general strike designed to remove him, the president, Hugo Chavez, now faces a binding referendum on his tenure. The constitution of 1999, whose drafting Mr Chavez oversaw, allows a president to be removed from office after the mid-point of his term if requested in a petition signed by 20% of the electorate, or 2.44m votes at the moment. The number of No votes in the referendum must exceed the number won by the incumbent when elected for his removal to be triggered--in Mr Chavez's case, that equates to 3.75m votes. What happens then depends on the timing of the vote: If more than two years remain until the end of the presidential term, new elections must be held within 30 days; otherwise, the vice-president takes over.
* The date of August 15th selected for the referendum is four days before the August 19th deadline after which Mr Chavez could be replaced by Jose Vicente Rangel, his long-serving vice-president, if defeated. Opposition leaders have taken issue with the timetable on a number of counts. First, they say it breaches an agreement reached between themselves, the government and the CNE to schedule any referendum on August 8th. Second, it is more amenable to delaying tactics should the government choose to use them. Finally, it means that official results are unlikely to be declared until after August 19th, a fact that the government may use to claim that the two-year rule has been breached, if it loses. The constitution is unclear on the issue, which might have to be referred to the Supreme Justice Tribunal (TSJ, the Supreme Court) for clarification.
* Another key question as yet unresolved is whether, if ousted in a referendum before August 19th, Mr Chavez will be eligible to stand in the ensuing election. His opponents argue that the constitution requires that the replacement be a new leader. They also say that Mr Chavez is already in the second of two consecutive terms permitted under the present constitution, and would therefore be ineligible. His supporters say the present term is the first under the 1999 constitution, and so he could run for another. Another argument still is that, if his term were to be truncated, a new one would not count as consecutive. Under this argument, if victorious, he could then go on to run for yet another term in 2010. Again, the TSJ may be called upon to rule on such issues.
* Questions regarding Mr Chavez's eligibility to run are more than academic. Opposition groups are united mainly by their distaste for the president and his policies, which they see as a threat to the country's traditional power structures. Such criticism is often couched in terms of the old political division between democracy and Communism, with Mr Chavez's friendly relations with Fidel Castro, Cuba's revolutionary leader, cited in evidence. This has allowed groups as disparate as labour unions, formerly-competing political parties, dominant sections of the media and the country's leading business associations to co-operate. Once the glue of anti-chavismo is removed, however, there is little to unite these actors. A defeat for Mr Chavez would immediately bring these tensions to the surface, and would probably lead to a sharp contest for power among the main opposition groups. It is noteworthy, for instance, that, even as the date for the referendum was announced, no single candidate had been proposed by the opposition to run for the presidency should Mr Chavez depart.
* Mr Chavez's right to stand may not be tested. It is far from a foregone conclusion that the opposition will win a referendum, or, if it does, that it will attract sufficient votes to trigger the president's ouster. The opposition is hampered by a number of factors, apart from the lack of a unifying issue beyond a loathing for Mr Chavez. First among these is the fact that Mr Chavez retains the loyalty of about 40% of the electorate, despite missteps during his time in office. The strength of feeling among the remainder is an issue of considerable doubt. Although the opposition claimed 3.4m had signed its petition, the electoral commission invalidated about 1m of this total--which was in any case some way short of the 3.75m votes required in a referendum. The opposition has also been short-changed by the global oil market, which has seen prices for Venezuela's main export surge ahead of the value forecast in the national budget. As a result, the government is sitting on a growing stock of unbudgeted revenue, providing resources for a vote-catching array of social spending projects. This development is particularly damaging for Mr Chavez's critics, who argue that his policies jeopardise the low-earners he claims to represent.
* There are a number procedural and constitutional issues on which the opposition and the government may clash. In each case, the final official arbiter is the TSJ. However, even a TSJ ruling may not be enough to resolve disputes--especially if it goes in favour of the government. In May, the legislature approved a bill increasing the number of judges on the TSJ to 32 from 20. This led to accusations that the government is preparing to fill the court with its appointees. Any adverse court decision will give the opposition ample ammunition for attacking Mr Chavez's democratic credentials. The government, in contrast, has long argued that court judges retain their loyalty to the political parties that monopolised power before 1998, and radical sections of the Chavez camp are unlikely to give way if the government is brought down as a result of a TSJ decision.
-- This article is provided courtesy of The Economist Intelligence Unit, and is
-- re-published without permission. The Economist Intelligence Unit is one of
-- the world's leading providers of country intelligence.
Note: August 9th-15th is Venezuela Week of Solidarity, a week of events in solidarity with the Venezuelan people, and to tell the US and UK governments (who've already backed one coup against Chávez) to keep their hands off Venezuela!...
Most of the events take place at the rampART in East London http://www.rampart.co.nr
Further info from email@example.com http://www.handsoffvenezuela.org