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Last Updated: Sunday, 7 March, 2004, 19:37 GMT
Analysis: Chavez's last stand?

By Elliott Gotkine
BBC correspondent in Caracas

A heroic-looking Hugo Chavez, shirt-sleeves rolled up and arms outstretched to touch his adoring followers, beams out from a billboard in the posh Caracas suburb of Chacaito.

Hugo Chavez speaking on Friday
Chavez is still enormously popular among the country's poor
The words that accompany the Venezuelan president and his fans are blunt, and to the point: "If you're against Hugo Chavez, you're against the people."

But the message appears to be lost on the half-million or so protesters who transformed the city's streets into a sea of red, yellow and blue on Saturday, as they marched peacefully - though loudly - in the biggest opposition rally of the year.

They say the Venezuelan leader is governing increasingly autocratically, that he's trying to turn this oil-rich country into another Cuba.

They also blame him for human rights abuses in breaking up the past week's protests, in which at least eight people have been killed.

The President beat them (the opposition) in democratic elections. They can't deny this reality
President Chavez's supporter

The opposition's salvation is a recall referendum on the president's rule, an innovation included in the Venezuelan Constitution, backed by Mr Chavez in 1999.

But for the referendum to be approved, the opposition must obtain signatures from 20% of the Venezuelan electorate - some 2.4 million people.

'Stick to rules'

So over four days, late last year, Venezuela's Democratic Co-ordinator - an opposition umbrella group - gathered together the necessary signatures and presented it to the National Electoral Council (CNE), the referee in the referendum process.

An anti-President Hugo Chavez protester dressed as death rallies with other opponents of Chavez in Caracas on 6 March
The opposition accuses Chavez of human rights abuses

The opposition says it handed in some 3.4m signatures - a million more than the minimum needed - only for the CNE to rule that about one-third of those would have to be double-checked.

Opponents of President Chavez see this as just another example of the CNE referee moving the goal posts.

"Suppose you have a football game and the score is 3-0," opposition leader Juan Fernandez told the BBC as he marched in Saturday's rally.

"And at the end of the game, the referee will say: 'Well, the result is 5-2 and the winner is the other team,'" Mr Fernandez said.

"That's the problem we are facing. We are not saying we will impose pressure on referee. We are saying: 'Referee, obey and comply with the laws and rules of this game. We are playing football, not baseball, so stick to the football rules.'"

Playing 'hardball with Chavez'

The opposition has vowed to keep protesting until they get their referendum. Will they?

CHAVEZ' S TURBULENT TIMES
1992: Paratrooper Chavez jailed after coup plot fails
1998: Wins presidential election
2000: Elected for second term
2001: Mass protests over economic reforms
2002: Military coup ousts President Chavez for 48 hours
2003: General strike fails to bring down government
2004: Electoral council rejects second petition demanding vote on Chavez rule
This weekend's massive protests took place on a Saturday.

The sun was shining, and most of President Chavez's mainly middle-class opponents probably had nothing better to do.

The test will be whether such a huge number of people would be prepared to pack the streets of Caracas on a regular basis.

And this is the main dilemma facing Venezuela's often-divided opposition.

They've tried playing hardball with Mr Chavez before, and lost each time.

In April 2002, a short-lived coup - allegedly backed by the United States - briefly ousted him from power, only for him to return, emboldened and re-energised.

And last year, he rode out a two-month national strike, which brought the economy close to ruin.

Opposition's gamble

But let's suppose for the moment that the CNE - under pressure from the US, the Organisation of American States and the European Union - decides there are enough signatures for a referendum. What then?

First of all, if it takes place after mid-August, there will be no new presidential elections.

Instead, and in accordance with Venezuela's Constitution, the country's vice-president would take control (remote control by President Chavez, the opposition fears) till the end of Mr Chavez's term.

If the referendum takes place before August, there there's no guarantee the opposition would win either this, or any subsequent presidential elections.

The only force uniting the opposition here is hatred of Hugo Chavez. And once he's out of office, his opponents could fall foul to their own internal divisions.

'Power of conviction'

The other problem for the opposition is that Mr Chavez is still enormously popular among large parts of the Venezuelan poor, who feel the country's traditional political elite has never done anything for them.

"The president beat them [the opposition] in democratic elections," said one Chavez supporter as he checked to make sure his name had not been fraudulently included in the opposition's pro-referendum petition.

"They can't deny this reality. They have economic power.

"We have power of conviction."


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