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Chavez still standing 10 years on

By Will Grant
BBC News, Caracas

Mr Chavez makes the V sign at a rally in Caracas
His election marked a profound change in Venezuelan history

With six months to go before the 1998 presidential election in Venezuela, the front-runner was a former beauty queen, Irene Saez, who had been the mayor of a wealthy district of Caracas.

By December, Hugo Chavez had won the election with a landslide, polling more than 56% of the vote.

Ms Saez eventually trailed in third, with around 4%.

President Chavez's victory in 1998 was a moment of seismic change in Venezuelan politics.

It broke a decades-old pact between the two traditional parties, Copei and Accion Democratica.

His 10 years since have been equally dramatic in upsetting the established order and ushering in a new era of political thinking, not just in Venezuela but across Latin America.

Newsmaker

Venezuela under Mr Chavez has never been far from the headlines.

He faced an attempted coup in 2002, an oil-strike for much of the following year and a recall referendum in 2004 which again he won with a landslide.

In fact there have been a total of 14 votes during Mr Chavez's decade in power - almost all of which he has won comfortably.

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Brian Hanrahan looks at Hugo Chavez's decade in power

The exception was last December, when he lost a constitutional referendum which, among other measures, included a reform to allow the president to stand for continuous re-election.

The opposition scored its first victory at the polls since 1998 and Mr Chavez seemed resigned to the fact that he had missed out by just a few thousand votes.

Now, though, he has decided to try again.

Following last month's regional elections in which the United Socialist Party of Venezuela lost some key seats to the opposition, Mr Chavez announced a plan to amend the constitution to allow him to stay in office for a further 10 years.

"God willing," he told supporters, "I'll be here until 2019 or 2021."

'Transition process'

Mr Chavez has already made it clear that he wants the issue resolved quickly and the necessary steps to table the constitutional change should be in place by February.

This will, of course, have to be voted on too.

So by early next year, it will be clear whether Mr Chavez has been given a mandate to stand for office indefinitely or whether he will have to step down as planned in 2012.

The continued presence of President Chavez as our leader is important and it's positive for the revolution, but even he is not indispensible
Calixto Ortega

"Over the next 10 years, the revolution is going to become deeper and more profound, " says Calixto Ortega, socialist member of the National Assembly for the region of Zulia.

"And part of that is bringing the people even closer to the decision-making process."

That's why, he says, there have been 14 different votes under Mr Chavez, with another one expected on the president's future next year.

"Previously, the people got to vote once, maybe twice, every five years. There was no popular involvement in politics," he said.

"At the moment we're still in transition from those governments of the past, run by elites, to a fully participatory process whereby the people themselves decide on how government is run."

Cult of personality

However, not everyone shares that view of Hugo Chavez's plans.

Cristina Moure is the director of research at the Justice and Democracy Foundation, an opposition think-tank.

"This is about President Chavez wanting to stay in power for as long as possible, it's as simple as that," she said.

Ms Moure says the suggestion that the president is trying to bring the people closer to the revolution is a long-standing argument which, after 10 years in office, no longer rings true.

Irene Saez
The 1998 frontrunner, Irene Saez, was eclipsed by Hugo Chavez

"The government always says that here in Venezuela the people rule and that Chavez is merely the figurehead of that popular power. But we've had 10 years of no-one but President Chavez. He is the one who decides, the one who rules everything from the top down."

The opposition claim that efforts to change the constitution are further evidence of a cult of personality at the centre of Venezuelan politics.

"If you have a real political project, that project can't just be about you," says Ms Moure.

"If their idea of 21st Century socialism is a real and genuine political project, and one which works as well as they claim that it does, then surely it should be bigger than President Chavez. Surely it should be capable of lasting without him."

But supporters of the change, such as Mr Ortega, insist that the revolution in Venezuela is indeed stronger than Hugo Chavez.

"No-one is indispensible," he says. "It's like your parents. I don't mean by that that President Chavez is a paternalistic figure. Rather that the relationship you have with your parents is one which is vital to your life but not indispensible.

"One day you must carry on without them. In this case, the continued presence of President Chavez as our leader is important, it's necessary and it's positive for the revolution. But even he is not indispensible."

'Going nowhere'

The opposition are unlikely to relish another electoral race so soon.

Although rising inflation and civil insecurity are major issues in Venezuela, the speed with which the re-election issue is moving may leave the opposition in its wake.

"We only have two months to coordinate our campaigns," one of the main parties has said. "And people are occupied with other things in December."

More importantly, Mr Chavez can still count on a personal rating of well over 50% of the population and tends to fare better in votes about him personally than in local elections about his party.

Supporters of the president have a chant which goes "Uh-Ah, Chavez no se va" - "Chavez will not go."

The vote on that question is to be decided early next year.

But what is clear is that after 10 years in office, the opposition are still going to need a lot more than a candidate with a pretty face to defeat him.



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