A question for any historians out there: are there other examples of a leader seeking near-dictatorial powers through democratic means, then losing and quickly conceding defeat?
Augusto Pinochet in 1989 is the only example that comes to mind, and it is not an apt analogy for yesterday’s outcome in Venezuela, since the Chilean general already had dictatorial powers.
Even Hugo ChÃ¡vez’s strongest critics owe him at least a bit of praise today, however grudging, for so rapidly acknowledging the failure at the ballot box of his attempt to expand powers through a series of constitutional reforms.
This morning’s outcome – a 49-to-51-percent defeat – certainly weakens ChÃ¡vez politically. But it is also a blow to the chorus of analysts who had declared democracy and insitutionality to be dead in Venezuela (many of whom supported a decidedly undemocratic coup attempt in April 2002).
“True enough, ChÃ¡vez was elected, but he has since used his power to rig the electoral apparatus and rob it of all credibility,” one of those critics, former Bush administration Assistant Secretary of State Roger Noriega, wrote last week. “He has made democratic change impossible and peaceful dissent useless, so it should come as no surprise when demonstrations turn deadly and elections are utterly discredited.”
Mr. Noriega’s sentences are almost amusing this morning. It appears that Venezuela’s electoral apparatus still has some credibility left.
Instead, the referendum’s result is a victory for those in Venezuela who resist the political polarization that has consumed their country. People who say they support much of what ChÃ¡vez has tried to do for the poorest Venezuelans, but who could not support the new direction signaled by the constitutional reforms. People like Gen. RaÃºl IsaÃas Baduel, ChÃ¡vez’s former defense minister; the leaders of the student movement; and leaders of social-democratic political organizations that have insisted on independence from the president’s “United Socialist Party of Venezuela.”
With the referendum going down to a narrow defeat, and with ChÃ¡vez conceding quickly, Venezuela has just threaded a difficult needle. The country just avoided some potentially disastrous outcomes that seemed perfectly plausible yesterday. Had the results showed ChÃ¡vez’s “yes” vote winning narrowly, the opposition would surely have cried fraud and taken to the streets, with bloody results. Had ChÃ¡vez refused to accept the outcome, forcing weeks of re-counts amid explosive rallies and demonstrations, violence would also have been likely.
These scenarios, thankfully, appear to have been averted. The vote was close: Hugo ChÃ¡vez certainly had an opportunity to insist on his victory, thereby proving right the critics who portray him as an authoritarian. But he didn’t take it.
Instead, Venezuela today awakened to the best possible outcome: a quick vote count, an evidently functioning set of electoral institutions, and – last but not least – defeat of a package of reforms that included some pretty bad ideas.
Caracas should breathe a sigh of relief this morning.