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Venezuela: Will Recall Referendum Separate Chavez Friends From Foes?

Summary

[Stratfor] - Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said the recent drive to gather the signatures from millions of registered voters on recall petitions is not valid because it was conducted fraudulently. As a result, he will not recognize any decisions by the country's electoral authorities -- unless they favor him politically. If Chavez refuses to subject himself to a recall referendum, it would plunge Venezuela into a constitutional crisis and likely would trigger political violence between his supporters and opponents. However, Chavez appears confident that he can hold power, even if it means breaking the electoral rules outlined in the new constitution he drafted.

Analysis

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said Dec. 7 that his government would not recognize the official results of the recent presidential recall petition drive because his political opponents engaged in massive fraud.

The petitions, which contain the signatures of an estimated 3.6 million registered voters, have not yet been delivered to the National Electoral Council (CNE) for official verification. However, Chavez gave specific examples of what he claimed were the forged signatures of dead voters, signatures of registered voters who would swear they never signed any recall petition, false names and other irregularities allegedly committed by his political opponents.

Chavez also said the petitions were signed by only 1.9 million registered voters -- 1.7 million fewer signatures than the total claimed by opposition leaders. Moreover, under the new Venezuelan constitution, it takes only 20 percent of registered voters -- 2.4 million people at present -- to force the CNE to call a presidential recall referendum. It is unclear how Chavez can be certain that the petitions total 500,000 fewer votes than needed for a referendum.

Chavez's accusations and alleged evidence of fraud could have come from government intelligence services that infiltrated the political opposition and found evidence of electoral fraud that international observers such as the Organization of American States (OAS) failed to detect. The political intelligence services do receive advice and tactical support from Cuban intelligence. Chavez also has consistently outwitted a political opposition that lacks charismatic leaders and is divided by internal power struggles over the issue of his eventual successor.

However, it also is possible that Chavez has gathered evidence of fraud in the recall petition process because his government committed the fraud.

Sources in Caracas have told Stratfor in recent days that there are indications the government tampered with voter registries by changing birth dates and misspelling names so they would not match signatures on the petitions. Opposition sources also claim that the government issued valid identity cards with the names of dead voters to Chavez supporters who then signed recall petitions, so that when the CNE went to verify the signatures it would discover the "fraud." The sources said that as many as 300,000 false identity cards might have been issued to Chavez supporters, but they could not substantiate this estimate.

The president's latest barrage of accusations means he is not going to roll over and accept defeat, even if the opposition did succeed in gathering enough valid signatures to force a recall referendum in the first half of 2004. Chavez reportedly assured close relatives and political allies recently that he would not allow his opponents to end his presidency under any circumstances.

His statement that the government would not recognize the petition drive, even if 2.4 million signatures are validated by the CNE, also suggests that the president will intensify efforts to delay a referendum until August 2004. Under the constitution, if a referendum is not held by then, Chavez could lose and still legally choose the person who would complete his term in power, which ends in December 2006. At the same time, however, Chavez has drawn a line in the sand that places three key institutions -- the CNE, the Supreme Court and the armed forces (FAN) -- in the political quicksand.

The CNE's five board members consistently voted 3-2 on decisions that favored Chavez in the weeks before the recall petition drive. However, the CNE's pro-Chavez majority is not unshakeable. Foreign diplomatic sources in Caracas say the CNE cannot get away politically with invalidating more than 1.2 million votes and declaring the recall referendum effort a failure. "I suspect the CNE's directors will sidestep the issue and authorize a referendum as soon as they count 2.4 million valid votes, which Chavez's supporters will contest in the courts," a European source in Caracas told Stratfor.

Chavez also has a slim majority on the Supreme Court, but this might not stop the justices from eventually handing down a decision that upholds what the CNE decides. From the Supreme Court's perspective, the politically savvy thing to do would be to lob the ball back to the CNE. In other words, if the CNE rules that a recall referendum must be held, the Supreme Court likely would uphold that ruling. However, if the CNE rules that a referendum cannot be held because insufficient voter signatures were obtained during the petitions, then the high court likely would uphold that position too and let the CNE take all of the political responsibility -- and any fallout from the decision.

Nevertheless, even if both the CNE and the Supreme Court eventually distance themselves from Chavez, the process could go on for months as the president's lawyers battle the opposition in the courts. Ultimately, Chavez's goal is to delay any referendum for at least nine months, until August. If he can tie up the issue in the courts for the next six to eight months, from his perspective it would constitute a political victory.

If Chavez cannot delay the process until the second half of 2004 and instead is forced to confront a referendum in the coming months, he still has a pair of aces he can bring into play. One of those is the political opposition. While Chavez is unpopular with at least two-thirds of Venezuelan voters, different polls also show that between 30 percent and 40 percent of voters have negative opinions of the opposition as well. These voters might consider Chavez a great disappointment and would like him to leave the presidency quickly, but not if that means installing a new president who would be a throwback to the traditional political elites that wrecked Venezuela and made Chavez's election in December 1998 possible.

Chavez likely will seek to fan fears that ousting him would bring back former, corrupt leaders. He also will continue his strategy of seeking to keep his opponents divided and battling among themselves, which doesn't require much effort by the president. The political opposition represented in the umbrella group called the Democratic Coordinator (CD) is united in its goal of unseating Chavez quickly -- but once that goal is achieved, the CD will fall apart as different groups and personalities compete for power.

Chavez's other potential ace is the FAN -- or at least a handful of military units that are believed to be fiercely loyal to the president. These units include the Ayala and Bolivar mechanized infantry and armored battalions based at Fort Tiuna in Caracas, which is also the headquarters of the army's Third Infantry Division, commanded by Gen. Jorge Luis Garcia Carneiro. Also, military units believed to be loyal to Chavez include the National Guard and the presidential honor guard based across the street from Miraflores palace in Caracas. Chavez also might be able to count on the loyalty of units based in eastern and western Venezuela, but his core military support is concentrated within the capital.

However, Chavez cannot be certain that he still has the loyalty of army Gen. Raul Baduel, who commands the Fourth Infantry Division headquartered in the central Venezuelan cities of Valencia and Maracay. Baduel is the general who was mainly responsible for rescuing Chavez and restoring him to the presidency in April 2002 after a short-lived military rebellion. At the time, Baduel defined himself as an institutional military officer who would respect Venezuela's constitution and elected civilian authorities under all circumstances. Recently, however, Baduel reaffirmed his institutional position in a meeting with Chavez in a way that greatly upset the president, according to a Stratfor source in the military.

On Nov. 29, one day after the recall petition drive started, Chavez reportedly met with senior MVR leaders and top military officers. At that meeting, where reports of massive voter turnout for the petition drive were reviewed, Chavez ordered military commanders to disrupt the opposition's petition drive by any means -- including violence if necessary. With some 60,000 troops deployed throughout the country, it would have been relatively easy for the military to shut down the signature-gathering process, although it's likely that violence would have broken out in Caracas and other cities. However, Baduel reportedly told the president that the petition drive was being conducted peacefully and democratically, as required by the constitution. Baduel also said that he no longer would support the president if Chavez insisted on halting the petition drive with force. Chavez backed down, and the following day he began charging that massive fraud had been committed.

If the reports Stratfor has received from Caracas are accurate, they imply that Chavez's control over a key infantry division has slipped. It would be a mistake, however, to interpret Baduel's remarks as proof that the general who saved Chavez is now prepared to turn against him. Baduel is looking out for his own political interests and his military career; he is not likely to revolt against Chavez unless he believes the president has gone over the edge and that rebelling is the only way Baduel could save his military career and enhance his political ambitions, which reportedly include the presidency.

Chavez frequently threatens his foes with violence, and some of his supporters engage in low-intensity violence and intimidation directed at opposition groups. But actually unleashing massive violence against the opposition appears to be Chavez's last-ditch option -- his Hail Mary strategy if all else fails. Chavez would like nothing better than to provoke his more extreme opponents into initiating violent protests and other tactics against his government. That would give him sufficient cause to deploy his loyal troops and declare martial law. Such a situation also likely would neutralize any reaction against Chavez from "institutional" military leaders like Baduel. The opposition hasn't given Chavez the confrontation he is seeking, however -- at least not yet.

 



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