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Early on Sunday morning, August 15, Venezuelans will start the voting process of the referendum forced by the opposition. This referendum will decide whether President Hugo Chavez will continue as president of the Republica Bolivariana de Venezuela or leave office.
This Sunday's referendum is the culmination of a long and, at times, fierce battle between President Chavez and opposing forces. The opposition, led by businesses, business men and people from the middle classes in Venezuelan society, has long argued that Chavez is slowly turning himself into a populist autocratic leader (he was democratically elected in 1998). Indeed, there are many signs pointing to that effect. One example is the amendment of the constitution increasing the powers of the President's office. Another example is that at his initiative, the two chambers of congress were combined into one. Chavez's party dominates the new assembly. One last example is that he has just finished placing a majority of his supporters on the benches of the supreme court. Many critics in the world are worried that Chavez is indeed trying to consolidate his power and turn the oldest democracy in Latin America into an autocratic state.(rean a NYTimes article on this subject)
On the other hand, Mr. Chavez argues that his opponents are just trying to win back power to continue to exploit the poor and to go back to old policies that only benefited his opponents. Throughout this battle Venezuela has been deeply divided along social and economic clases. Those supporting President Chavez are mainly the poor and less well to do. Those supporting the opposition are the well to do and upper classes.
Even though the referendum will happen this Sunday, opposition forces have had to fight hard with Chavist forces for it to become a reality. Millions of people demonstrated against Mr. Chavez on the streets and almost force him out of office. But, by the same token, the other million demonstrated also in the streets in support of their President. There was so much trouble that the international community was worried about the results. Now, there are literally thousands of international observers from a wide array of international organizations. The most prominent are Cesar Gaviria, president of the Organization of the American States (OAS) and former US President Jimmy Carter of the Carter Center (read more from the Carter Center on this issue). These observers have a hard day ahead of them. They will have to work amidst claims of irregularities on the part of the government to try to undermine the referendum.
This referendum is very important for Venezuela. No matter what the results are, if the process seems fair and no serious irregularities happen, the destabilization factor is greatly diminished. However, this bitter battle, it seems, will hardly stop at the referendum. The oppositions forces are very serious in their intent to removing Mr. Chavez from his office. They've tried a Coup d'Etat before, what's to stop them if they loose the referendum now? On his part, Mr. Chavez, is in the middle of consolidating his power. What is going to happen when he wins the referendum? Will he go all the way and become an autocrat? Moreover, what will happen if he loses the referendum? Will he go quietly? or will he rely on his supporters and followers, whom he was careful enough to spread them all over the governmental apparatus. For example, if the results get contested, the complaints will have to be directed to the National Electoral Council (CNE, Spanish acronym), agency legally responsible for the referendum. This agency, apparently, is staffed with Mr. Chavez's supporters and the argument is that they will stall the process and perhaps even rule in favor of Chavez.
It will be an interesting Sunday for Venezuela. One that will test the peoples resolve to solve their problems democratically. We will keep an eye on this part of the world.