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Venezuela Can Win

August 14, 2004

Venezuelans will decide in a referendum Sunday what to do with their controversial president, Hugo Chavez. A "no" vote means Chavez remains in office until December 2006. A "yes" vote means he's out of office, at least temporarily. The vote looks as if it will be close. Chavez might run again even if he is booted out. Prognostication aside, the most important outcome is a vote respected by winner and loser alike.

To the credit of both sides, international observers such as the Organization of American States and the Carter Center have been involved with election preparations for months and will observe the computer-screen balloting.

To be deemed successful, the election will need certification by both local electoral authorities and the international observers as free, fair and transparent.

A bad outcome would ripple far outside Venezuela's borders. It is the world's fifth-largest exporter of oil with a $128-billion economy and 25 million people. Given the world's oil unrest, turmoil in Venezuela would have an outsized effect.

No matter how fair the balloting, neither side is likely to gain a big margin or clear mandate. This is a straight up-or-down decision on the mercurial populist president, with no replacement president being simultaneously chosen. Venezuela isn't California; if Chavez loses, voters will return to the polls in a month to elect a successor.

Venezuelans are deeply divided on Chavez, who is alternatively seen as a champion of the poor and a political radical who has wrecked the economy. That the democratic process has survived this far is a credit to the electorate. Still, there are fears of violence surrounding the election; street protests for and against Chavez less than two years ago killed 40 people and injured several hundred more.

Chavez has used and abused public resources in his campaign to beat his political enemies. He's famous for his attempts to intimidate the press. His angry speeches keep the national divide raw. During his five years in office, Venezuelans' personal income has dwindled and unemployment has risen.

But Chavez won office democratically because people wanted a change from the corrupt and failed policies of his predecessors. The opposition to Chavez lost credibility with a brief attempted coup in April 2002, and his rivals have not offered a clear alternative to his callous rule. At least a fair election and acceptance of its results would keep the road open for better governance in the future.

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