President for Life?

The campaign to permit the re-election of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez in the Presidential elections of December 2012 is gathering speed. In this context worries have sprung up for the vitality of Venezuelan democracy despite the recently completed regional elections, declared "peaceful and exemplary" by OAS Secretary General Jóse Miguel Insulza. The possibility of re-election is posited as authoritarian by some, and illegal by others.
The Venezuelan Constitution states that a rejected constitutional reform cannot be presented again within the same electoral period. As such because the constitutional reform package of 2007 included changes permitting further re-election when it was narrowly defeated, the currently proposed changes seem illegal.
Yet the legality of this change is dealt with by a particularity of the Venezuelan Constitution. It draws a distinction between constitutional reform and amendment, only the former cannot be re-presented in the same term. The difference lies in whether the change seeks to alter the constitutions norms rather than its procedures. Clearly a matter for debate, but it seems that removing term limits is more a question of a specific article, number 230, than an underlying norm of the constitution.
The supposed authoritarianism of indefinite re-election is well voiced. Even Chávez’s proclaimed intellectual inspiration, Símon Bolivar, the liberator of Venezuela from Spanish rule voiced concerns about indefinite re-election. "Nothing is as dangerous as letting the same citizen stay in power for a large period of time".
What concerned Bolívar however, was not the idea of re-election, but the practicality of it. The people, he suggested, "become accustomed to obeying" and the citizen to leading, and that from this point begins the usurpation of popular sovereignty. For anyone remotely familiar with the vigorous Venezuelan opposition movement the former worry does not seem to be a matter of serious concern. Especially when we take into account that Venezuela, unlike the United States, allows a referendum on the revocation of the President’s mandate as tried in 2004.
When we talk of being accustomed to rule we inevitably posit leadership at the stroke of the President’s pen. We must note that decrees have been a feature of the Chávez presidency, as with many of the administration’s nationalisations. Yet using this as our measure, when viewed comparatively, Chávez seems relatively unaccustomed to leadership despite his ten years at the helm. Brazil from 1988-95 saw 1004 decrees by one count. Carlos Menem of Argentina, now under investigation for illegal arms trafficking, though at the time much celebrated, issued over 300.
Though a leader may be of an authoritarian disposition, as many suggest of Chávez, this does not designate the institutional environment they operate in as authoritarian. Democratic institutions should endeavour to curb these personal tendencies, yet in this sense we must recognise the "re-election" is still "election". Power, still, would reside ultimately with the people. What’s more we must recognise that the amendment would itself be an effect of the general will, it will require approval in a referendum.
An important element in determining whether the amendment is authoritarian is the mode by which it is introduced. The Venezuelan Constitution allows three possible sources of initiative: the president, thirty percent of deputies in the National Assembly, or a petition with signatures from at least 15% of those inscribed on the national electoral register.
Many had hoped that the popular route would be taken. This simply seems more democratic, especially in regards to securing the popular protagonism envisioned in the Constitution. It would also have provided an opportunity for the activist base of Chávez’s party, the PSUV, to regain the initiative over the members of its higher echelons, some of whom are perceived even by Chávistas to be corrupt or incompetent.
Yet on the 5th of December 2008 Chávez indicated on the program "dando y dando" that the amendment would be introduced via the National Assembly. Though this is a missed opportunity to further its democratic credentials, the introduction of the amendment this way hardly consigns it as authoritarian.
The saying goes that "charity begins at home", perhaps so should criticism. The British Parliamentary system places no formal limit on the possible time one individual could spend as Prime Minister. With three electoral victories Tony Blair was the country’s longest serving Labour Prime Minister, and while many consider his mode of leadership authoritarian, we still regard our system as a vigorous democracy. This feeling endures even though a man currently leads us who few would claim to have voted to such a position in a general election.

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