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Tuesday, July 27, 1999 Published at 10:00 GMT 11:00 UK

World: Americas

Analysis: Venezuela awaits new order

Mr Chavez made his first grab for power in a 1992 attempted coup

By Americas Regional Editor Robert Plummer

Political analysts in Venezuela have been quick to describe President Hugo Chavez's latest electoral triumph as a massive rejection of the country's established political order.

Although no date has yet been set for convening the new National Constituent Assembly, the fact that supporters of President Chavez hold at least 120 of the 131 seats means that the former coup leader now has absolute power to rewrite the Venezuelan constitution.

But as Mr Chavez repeatedly stated in the run-up to the vote, he wants the assembly to go further than that, by dissolving Congress and the Supreme Court for the duration of its planned six-month existence.

Getting rid of Congress could prove to be the final nail in the coffin for the two political parties that have dominated Venezuelan political life for decades, the social democrat Accion Democratica and the Christian democrat Copei.

The two parties still occupy a majority of seats in Congress, but both have seen their support wane during the 1990s, as voters have come to blame them for plunging the country into economic crisis and failing to ensure that its huge oil wealth was spent wisely.


At least the voters who gave Mr Chavez their support were fully aware of the possible consequences, unlike those who elected Alberto Fujimori as President of Peru in 1990 only to see him shut down his country's Congress without warning just two years later.

[ image: Chavez supporters celebrate landslide victory]
Chavez supporters celebrate landslide victory
If Venezuela does now follow in Peru's footsteps, Mr Chavez can defend himself against accusations of a so-called "auto-coup" by invoking the will of the people.

However, the jury is still out on whether Mr Chavez is a democrat or an autocrat at heart. His detractors point to a creeping militarisation at the highest levels of government, as the former paratrooper continues to appoint members of the armed forces to senior posts.

And even if he does use the assembly to reshape the Venezuelan political system to his liking, there is no guarantee that Mr Chavez can solve the country's economic problems.

Economic problems

The last Venezuelan President to attempt economic austerity measures was Carlos Andres Perez, who became so unpopular as a result that he prompted the then Colonel Chavez to launch a coup attempt against him in 1992.

[ image: Former President Carlos Perez failed to win seat]
Former President Carlos Perez failed to win seat
Mr Perez was eventually removed from office and was found guilty of corruption, spending more than two years under house arrest.

Meanwhile, Mr Chavez spent two years in prison before being pardoned by Mr Perez's successor.

Mr Perez remains a political opponent of the man who nearly ousted him, but he failed to win a seat on the new constituent assembly. "Whoever wins, we all lose," Mr Perez told a Venezuelan radio station, "because we all know what's coming next."

The lesson is clear: as long as Mr Chavez gives the people what they want, his position is secure - but once he faces the kind of hard economic choices that proved Mr Perez's undoing, his popularity may take a tumble.

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