In a vote that stunned the opposition, a majority of Venezuelans cast ballots in favor of President Hugo Chavez in the recall referendum. Opposition leaders claim to have evidence of fraud and are pushing for an audit of the votes. However, as VOA?s Serena Parker reports, many Venezuelans are tired of the two-year political battle to remove Mr. Chavez and would prefer the opposition work with the government to move the country forward.
Venezuela?s business and middle classes have long accused President Hugo Chavez of trying to hijack the country and turn it into a socialist state like Cuba. But Mr. Chavez is wildly popular among the poor majority in this nation of 24 million people, and they turned out in record numbers to vote against a plan to remove him from office.
According to Mark Schneider, senior vice president for the International Crisis Group, a dramatic increase in social spending over the past six months likely helped cement Mr. Chavez?s support from the under-privileged. The government has used revenues from the state-run oil company to fund health, education and food programs in poor neighborhoods and rural towns.
?I think that the spending spree undoubtedly had an impact in reassuring his base in the poverty community that to the degree that the government was able -- in terms of having additional resources -- it would devote them to improving conditions within those communities. So I think it did help,? he says.
Voter turnout was above 60% and those voting to retain Mr. Chavez won 58% of the vote. This was the third time since 1998 that Venezuelans have been asked to vote on Mr. Chavez, and it was the third time that he won a decisive victory. The next opportunity for the opposition to challenge Mr. Chavez is the 2006 presidential election. Although some of the more strident anti-Chavez leaders have urged people to take to the streets to protest the outcome, the capital city of Caracas is calm and people appear to be going about their everyday business.
According to Kimberly Stanton, deputy director at the Washington Office on Latin America, a human rights and democracy monitor in Washington, the people of Venezuela are exhausted from more than two years of bitter political conflict. They want the politicians to put the partisan bickering aside and work to improve the country.
?The burden is definitely on the leadership on both sides at this point to find ways in the interest of national well being to overcome the very deep polarization that has resulted from the last two years,? she says. ?And the issues that Venezuela faces are long standing and structural in some cases and really need some very serious attention from people looking for creative new policies.?
In a victory speech, Mr. Chavez called the results a triumph for the country and made conciliatory statements toward the opposition. Ms. Stanton applauds these gestures and hopes the opposition will reciprocate.
?They need to move ahead and they need to refocus on the policy issues and the structural problems of Venezuela that need attention rather than Chavez himself,? she says. ?So much of the debate is around Chavez as an individual. And because of that one can think that if Chavez disappeared, somehow everything would be fine. But the issues are still there. The problems are still there. So they need to refocus on what?s underlying the conflict rather than on the person.?
It remains to be seen if the two sides will find common ground and begin to work together as government and loyal opposition. Mark Schneider at the International Crisis Groups says that depends largely on Mr. Chavez.
?For example, if Chavez pursues the expansion of the Supreme Court and names clearly partisan individuals to the Supreme Court, or, if government officials carry out reprisals against individuals who either are government employees or private companies that are identified as having supported the referendum, or if he restricts the economic openings to only his partisan supporters, if those things happen, then presumably the polarization will increase,? he says.
In recent months the loose coalition of groups opposed to Mr. Chavez has appeared more united. They even put together a common platform that received support from all the various factions. Whether they will stay unified enough to mount a successful challenge to Mr. Chavez in the 2006 presidential election remains to be seen.