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At Least We Use Ballots, Not Bullets

September 05, 2003|Marc Cooper | Marc Cooper is a contributing editor to the Nation and a columnist for LA Weekly.

Chalk up yet one more supporter of the California recall: Hugo Chavez, the embattled president of Venezuela.

"Go to California; the referendum is over there," Chavez told his local press corps last month.

Not that Chavez has voiced much of an opinion either way on the tenure and future of Gray Davis. It's simply that the Venezuelan president, who just got served with his own batch of 3 million signatures demanding his recall, would prefer that Davis -- not he -- get the hook from angry voters.

It turns out the recall mechanism is not such an exotic Left Coast peculiarity as some think. Not only do 18 other states in the union provide for recall but so does the national government of Venezuela. Indeed, it was a 1999 rewrite of the Venezuelan Constitution, overseen by Chavez himself, that permits recall at any time in the second half of the president's term. Chavez probably never dreamed the provision would be used against him.

The predicaments of Chavez and Davis have much in common. After enjoying initial broad political support, both leaders now suffer from possibly terminal unfavorability. Davis has held just about every statewide elected office, never losing an election, only to find himself as the most unpopular governor in recent California history.

Chavez, a former paratrooper, led a failed coup in 1992 against a discredited regime, and he skyrocketed in popularity. But now, three years into his second term, his popularity rating hovers at barely 30%.

California's economy hemorrhages jobs and sags beneath a budget gap that's in the billions, with billions more in long-term energy contracts signed by the governor. Similarly, the Venezuelan economy is barely sputtering, despite Chavez's promises of a revolution to benefit the poor. The gross domestic product is expected to fall as much as 18% this year. Unemployment runs unchecked, as does desperation.

Both the Venezuelan president and the California governor reject their respective recalls on similar procedural grounds. Davis has vociferously insisted that the California recall is a partisan, right-wing attempt to overturn a legitimate election. Chavez, for his part, branded those pushing for his ouster "fascists and terrorists."

Venezuela is doing now what California did in July -- counting and certifying petition signatures to decide whether or not the recall should go forward. Unlike California, which will hold one election on one day to decide whether there should be a recall and, if so, who should succeed Davis, the Venezuelans will vote first in a yes/no referendum on Chavez. Only if he loses will a follow-up election be scheduled to choose a new president.

How both recall movements are actually playing out is where their similarities end. Though Chavez agreed to the referendum on his presidency as part of a mediation brokered by the Organization of American States, he is now balking, deriding the 60 boxes of recall petitions turned in last month as illegal. If the petition signatures are certified, a newly constituted National Electoral Council must resist Chavez's obstructionist tactics and set elections sometime in the next 90 days. Great uncertainty surrounds the scheduling of the vote, which is far from guaranteed.

Those who have been quick to condemn California's recall as chaos or "mob-ocracy" might want to catch their breath and ponder the events in Venezuela. Chavez has dangerously flirted with authoritarian rule, has freely bullied his opponents and blatantly stacked the Supreme Court with political toadies.

Nor has his opposition done much to bolster democratic rule. Last year, the anti-Chavez forces backed a clumsy, tragicomic coup that saw the president deposed and restored to power in 48 hours. After the putsch failed, the opposition supported a suffocating weeks-long economic boycott and shutdown of the oil fields that cost the strapped country at least $4 billion.

Both sides have stirred up massive marches and strikes and have lustily participated in violent and bloody demonstrations that have left a number of their fellow citizens dead and wounded. Now, that's real chaos. And there could be more to come if Chavez ignores his own constitution and refuses to hold or honor the recall.

California, by contrast, is nothing but laid back. No one has died. No shots have been fired. Davis hasn't threatened to have the Highway Patrol shutter the Legislature. No pro-McClintock militias have surfaced to intimidate Cruz Bustamante supporters with clubs and guns.

California's recall vote will take place on schedule, unless postponed by a court ruling. And when the results are finally tallied, either Davis or the recall proponents will go quietly, gently into the night.

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