Chávez forced to battle for long-term future

President Hugo Chávez is encountering unexpectedly strong opposition to a referendum on constitutional reform which would cement his rule in Venezuela, with violent clashes between rival demonstrations and security forces feeding a mood that the country is at a turning point.

According to opinion polls, the socialist leader could lose this Sunday’s vote amid unease over his radical policies and ambition to stay in power for decades.

Defections from his movement’s ranks and food shortages have galvanised a student-led opposition campaign which is due to climax at a final rally in downtown Caracas on Thursday.

Defeat would stymie Chávez’s effort to abolish term limits and oblige him to step down in five years. He has expressed a desire to keep running for president until 2030.

The president, a formidable and charismatic campaigner, has cast the referendum as a verdict on his rule and said anyone who supported him but voted against would be a traitor. ”It’s black and white. A vote against the reform is a vote against Chávez,” he told state television.

He said he would enter a period of ”profound reflection” if he lost, but dismissed the prospect. ”We’re obligated to victory, to continue triumphing. This is a battle of world proportions.”

The former soldier remains extremely popular among the poor for spending oil revenues on schools and clinics. His recent harangues against the Spanish and Colombian governments as lackeys of the United States ”empire” were seen as efforts to fire up his electoral base. With the backing of state resources he will be able to mobilise a strong turnout in favour.

The opposition has also rallied its base with university students taking the lead in a loose coalition of political parties, the Catholic church, business leaders and disaffected chávistas.

A survey for Datanalisis, a polling company, said 49% of likely voters would vote no and 39% would vote yes. A tracking poll by the opposition-linked Hinterlaces pollster predicted a technical tie.

Since his election in 1998, however, Chávez has never lost a vote and polls have a record of underestimating his support.

The outcome hinges on turnout of the estimated 40% of Venezuelans known as ”NiNis” who are not aligned to either side. A majority of them oppose the referendum.

There are unconfirmed rumours the Supreme Court may accept a petition to postpone the vote. Ironically the petition was lodged by the opposition when it assumed it would lose, but such a ruling would now be seen as a gift to the government.

The proposed 69 constitutional amendments would declare South America’s oil giant a socialist state, extend presidential terms from six to seven years and allow continuous election.

Chávez would also gain direct control over foreign currency reserves and have greater power to appoint regional leaders, expropriate private property and censor the media during emergencies.

The self-termed socialist revolutionary has called the revision a path to ”people power” because it would enshrine the authority of hundreds of thousands of newly formed communal councils to spend money on local needs.

Other provisions would cut the working day to six hours and give state pensions to street vendors, stay-at-home mothers and domestic workers.

”My family would be better off under this Constitution, no question,” said Roberto Arebala (23) a farm worker in Barinas. ”The comandante has delivered for us and will continue doing so if we give him the chance.”

In contrast, other Venezuelans foresee ruin and say the constitution would give too much power to a man who already controls the national assembly, the supreme court, the oil industry and most levels of government.

The middle class are emigrating in droves to the US, Europe and central America. Pregnant women are giving birth in Panama City so their babies can obtain Panamanian citizenship.

Once loyal chávistas such as Raul Baduel, a former defence minister, and Podemos, a party within the ruling coalition, have broken with the president and warned of a lurch towards authoritarianism. The president’s ex-wife, María Isabel Rodríguez, a journalist, echoed the call for a no vote.

Shortages of milk, eggs, sugar and other staples combined with high inflation have also eroded the president’s support. Crowds queuing at some supermarkets have scuffled during deliveries, prompting the national guard to intervene. – Guardian Unlimited Â

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