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Last Updated: Friday, 28 November, 2003, 18:50 GMT
Weekend of decision for Venezuela

Analysis
By Robert Plummer
BBC News Online Latin America analyst

Both sides in Venezuela's bitter political stalemate have staked out their positions at the outset of the 96-hour signature-gathering marathon that could decide the country's future.

Gathering signatures in Venezuela
Opponents of Mr Chavez have until Monday to sign up
President Hugo Chavez is adamant that there is no way the opposition can legitimately sign up the 20% of the electorate that they need to trigger a referendum on his term in office.

If they do manage it, he predicts that they will face "a historic defeat" in the resulting vote.

But opposition leaders are equally confident that they can and will get 2.4 million people out of the 12 million registered voters to declare their support for a poll that could force Mr Chavez out of office.

The head of the Fedecameras business leaders' association, Albis Munoz, talks of healing the wounds of Venezuelan society and says the country is tired of "lies and broken promises".

Landslide

Five years ago, the mood was very different. Venezuelans were preparing for the presidential election that would see Mr Chavez awarded his first democratic mandate.

The world looked on warily as the ex-paratrooper who had inspired two coup attempts in 1992 won a landslide victory, campaigning as an outsider fighting the corruption of Venezuela's political establishment.

On that day, 6 December 1998, Mr Chavez won 56% of the vote in the biggest margin of victory for 40 years.

It's likely that Chavez will lose, lick his wounds and then come back in 2006
Professor George Philip, LSE
The optimism was maintained as Mr Chavez seized his chance to re-shape the country's political system by re-drafting the constitution.

He replaced the old Congress with a single-chamber National Assembly and concentrated more political power in the hands of his Movement of the Fifth Republic (MVR) party.

He duly won re-election for a six-year term under the new system in July 2000.

But during the first half of that term, the president's following in the country waned dramatically as he neglected the looming problems of the country's economy.

Failed strike

Observers say Mr Chavez's support now hovers around the 30% mark - enough to make it tough for his opponents to force him out, but not enough to put his leadership beyond dispute.

That explains why the opposition has fought so tenaciously, yet failed so signally, to oust Mr Chavez from the presidency.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez
Mr Chavez maintains support among poor people in Venezuela
First there was the failed coup attempt against him in April last year, then the debilitating two-month general strike that fizzled out earlier this year.

Latin American expert Professor George Philip, of the London School of Economics, believes that this time they may have more of a chance.

"The government will do all it can to control the process and all kinds of technical objections will be made, but in the end, I think it more likely than not that there will be a vote," he told the BBC.

"However, it's likely that Chavez will lose, lick his wounds and then come back in 2006," he added.

"The opposition is a loose coalition of forces, and in power they would find it very difficult to unite."

Social programmes

The bleak prospects for Venezuela's battered economy are a major reason for the decline in support for the president.

Oil production never fully recovered after the general strike, yet three-fifths of government revenue comes from oil.

But while the middle classes have turned against Mr Chavez, many of the have-nots are still firmly on his side.

Venezuela's poor have benefited from the president's social programmes and are convinced that the opposition would abolish them.

Feelings on both sides are running very high, and Mr Chavez's supporters have already staged their own rival signature-gathering campaign in a bid to remove 38 opposition politicians from the National Assembly.

With no clear alternative political figure to Mr Chavez on offer, the damaging polarisation of Venezuelan society could well continue even after his removal, with unpredictable results.




SEE ALSO:
New bid to oust Venezuela leader
28 Nov 03  |  Americas
Chavez supporters bid to sack MPs
22 Nov 03  |  Americas
Chavez poll petition rejected
12 Sep 03  |  Americas
Chavez allies rally their support
24 Aug 03  |  Americas
Chavez foes push for early poll
20 Aug 03  |  Americas
Venezuela sets Chavez poll limit
04 Aug 03  |  Americas


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