His Moment Of Truth

Hugo Chavez, Venezuela's controversial president, spent all of 2002 fending off attempts to oust him from power. Massive street protests, organized by political opponents, roiled Caracas. A two-month-long general strike paralyzed the country's vital oil industry. There was a near-coup by dissident military officers. All failed to halt what Chavez calls his "revolution."

Now the opposition, which views the Chavez government as both incompetent and authoritarian, is pursuing another strategy. According to a provision in the Constitution, which Chavez and his supporters rewrote in 1999, he must submit to a recall referendum after the halfway point in his term if 20 percent of the electorate requests such a vote. Both those conditions may soon be met: The president's opponents have gathered the signatures of 2.7 million people who want a recall vote, and after Aug. 19 the Constitution permits such a referendum to be held. So Chavez's moment of truth may be at hand. Chavez has boasted that Venezuela's new Constitution is the "best in the world." Now, as Teodoro Petkoff, editor of the newspaper TalCual, wrote in a recent editorial, "it has him by the throat."

Maybe. Polls show that Chavez's popularity has sunk to its lowest point--only 30 percent of Venezuelan voters say they support him. But the president is a master political operator, and he's maneuvering with some success to delay or permanently sidetrack the recall referendum. Critics charge that he's trying to ditch democracy and cling to power. Others say he's merely acting like any desperate politician, even though the government and the opposition signed a pact in May, brokered by the Organization of American States, that declared their willingness to abide by the Constitution in the power struggle. "I don't think it's in any politician's interest to have an election that's just 'me, against me', " says a Western diplomat in Caracas. A majority of Venezuelans favor the idea of a recall vote, including some Chavez supporters, but many people doubt that one will take place soon.

Chavez's ruling coalition is trying to use its thin parliamentary majority to thwart the challenge. Before the referendum can be held, the legislature must appoint a new electoral authority, the CNE, which will be charged with supervising the vote. Legislators have been deadlocked for months on who should be appointed to the five-member CNE. The Venezuelan Supreme Court has buoyed the opposition by stepping into the fray. It vows to appoint the CNE itself by Aug. 25 if the Parliament can't reach a consensus. That prospect has riled the Chavez camp. "No CNE appointed by the Supreme Court will have the confidence of the people," argues Congressman Nicolas Maduro. "We will use all the means at our disposal to stop that from happening." Fellow legislator Ismael Garcia, another Chavez ally, warns that Venezuela would be plunged into a "civil war" if the political opposition attempts "to regain power through unconstitutional means."

On the other hand, political experts say that it would be risky for the president to foment a confrontation between two branches of government. "Chavez's great strength is the democratic origin of his government," says Rafael Simon Jimenez, a congressman from the president's home state of Barinas who controls a small but important swing vote in the Parliament. "If he loses that, he faces a crisis of legitimacy, and would be on the ropes, nationally and internationally. And I think he's well aware of that."

Whatever happens with the CNE, Chavez will pursue other means of blocking the referendum. The government is almost certain to challenge the legitimacy of the signatures collected by the opposition in support of the recall. Experts say that the names will probably have to be gathered again. Beyond that, the Western diplomat suggests, Chavez might declare a national emergency or call a new presidential election rather than submit to a recall. With the opposition unlikely to agree on a single candidate, Chavez, who remains the country's most popular individual candidate, could win. Even if the recall vote is held, the opposition faces a tough task. A simple majority vote against Chavez will not be sufficient to defeat him. The rules say he can be removed only if more votes are cast against him than were cast for him (about 3.7 million) in the last election. Given Venezuela's typically low voter turnout, that could be a challenge.

Congressman Jimenez just wants the president to play fair. "Democracy was developed as a means of controlling man's tendency to cling to power," he said. He vows to block any parliamentary moves by Chavez supporters he perceives as "undemocratic." The president still has room to maneuver--but with his popularity sagging and the opposition in dogged pursuit, his options are beginning to narrow.