Will Chavez Lose His Luster?

Courtesy Reuters


On December 6, 1998, Venezuelans stunned the world by electing as their president Hugo Chavez, a firebrand who six years earlier had sought to overthrow the country's long-standing democracy in a bloody but unsuccessful coup. Fifty-six percent of voters cast their ballots for the daring outsider and his promise to dislodge the thoroughly corrupt political elite. These hopeful citizens saw a political housecleaning as the way to halt the country's prolonged economic decline, restore growth, create employment, and overcome escalating social problems.

Chavez has made bold moves to overhaul politics, and for a while his actions seemed to justify his nation's hopes. In nearly three years, he has transformed Venezuela's political institutions and greatly weakened the old guard. In his first year in office, he engineered a new national constitution that significantly strengthened presidential powers. One revision, for example, allows the president to run for immediate reelection rather than wait the previously mandated ten years after leaving office. Chavez took advantage of the change by holding new elections in July 2000, this time winning 59 percent of the vote. The new constitution also abolished the Senate, creating a unicameral National Assembly with limited oversight of the president's decision-making. Chavez has used this weakening of the checks and balances of executive authority to his advantage, notably by using military promotions for political gain.

These new powers, combined with the charismatic leader's own political prowess and the current dominance of his supporting coalition, suggest that Chavez enjoys a broad mandate to govern. As of the middle of this year, he continued to command high approval ratings of between 59 and 63 percent. In the July 2000 elections, parties friendly to the president captured 60 percent of the seats in the National Assembly. Opposition parties and movements are now divided and confused, having failed to contain Chavez's advances. Meanwhile, Chavez is in the process of debilitating, marginalizing, or taking over major interest groups that might otherwise oppose him, notably trade unions and business associations.

And yet, strong as his

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