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Venezuela: Government, Opposition Sign Electoral Agreement - 2003-05-29

Venezuela's government and political opposition have signed an agreement to produce an electoral solution to the country's 18 month political crisis. But many in the opposition have serious reservations with the effectiveness of the agreement that was mediated by international facilitators led by Cesar Gaviria, secretary-general of the Organization of American States:

It took six months of arduous negotiations to produce the agreement, which in essence does little more than to restate the provisions of the 1999 constitution. This allows for a recall referendum after the halfway point of the presidential term.

The opposition umbrella group, known as the Democratic Coordinator, has long insisted the country could not endure the controversial leadership of populist President Hugo Chavez until August this year, when his current six-year term reaches the three-year mark.

They accuse the president, among other things, of seeking to impose an authoritarian regime, of repeatedly violating the constitution and of destroying the economy.

Despite staging a devastating, two-month-long strike and business stoppage, which paralyzed the country's vital oil industry, in a bid to force the president to resign or hold an early vote, the opposition was eventually forced to give in.

The economy shrank by almost 30 percent in the first quarter of this year, but Mr. Chavez's support has held steady at more than 35 percent and no single opposition leader has emerged to challenge him.

Polls suggest the president would lose a recall referendum. But many obstacles still remain before such a vote can be held.

The two sides have not been able to agree on the appointment of a new electoral authority; the opposition will probably have to gather once again the almost 2.5 million signatures it needs before a referendum can be called and the agreement does not specify a date by which it must be held.

By signing the agreement, the government is, in the eyes of the international community, committing itself to the referendum solution. But Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel, head of the government negotiating team, pointed out that the agreement and the referendum were separate, and that the latter would only go ahead if the opposition could meet all the constitutional requirements.

The other major concern of many in the opposition is that, now that the negotiations are over and Cesar Gaviria is leaving, the ability or willingness of the international community to supervise the agreement may be limited.

The accord provides for his team to return as and when required, but it is no secret that the government is happy to see the end of the permanent presence of the facilitators, especially now that it feels that it has defeated opposition attempts to force the president's resignation.

It will be months before it is possible to judge the success or failure of the process which culminated with the agreement. And no one expects the period from now to the referendum, if it should take place, to be anything but turbulent.