CARACAS, VENEZUELA — Despite the prospect of economic hard times as oil revenue plunges, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is preparing to go before voters with a plea that they've rejected once before: End term limits that block him from staying in power indefinitely.
The National Electoral Commission is expected this week to set a Feb. 15 date for a referendum seeking approval of a measure that would allow Chavez and all other elected officials to run for reelection an unlimited number of times.
With some recent surveys showing 55% or more of respondents opposing such a measure to extend presidential term limits beyond the current two six-year terms, the plan raises the question: "Why now?"
The answer may well be: now or never.
Barring a dramatic increase in oil prices, Venezuela could suffer a severe recession. The deep cuts in public welfare projects that would ensue would make any future term limit measure even less likely to win approval.
"Chavez sees himself as the eternal comandante but if he loses this, he'll be gone in four years," said Ricardo Sucre, a political scientist at Central University of Venezuela. "He's in a hurry because he doesn't want to bet on an uncertain future."
Knowing the stakes, Chavez is campaigning nonstop, painting dire scenarios for voters of what a defeat would mean: the end of his welfare projects in Venezuela, a victory for the U.S. "empire," and perhaps even civil war if his supporters don't accept defeat, not to mention the end to Chavismo in early 2013 when his current term expires.
In December 2007, Chavez narrowly lost a vote to rewrite 69 articles of Venezuela's Constitution, including one that would have abolished term limits.
Although Chavez remains highly popular after nearly 10 years in office, recent polls indicate that a majority of voters oppose letting him cling to power indefinitely, said Saul Cabrera, head of the Consultores 21 polling firm.
"His personalizing of this issue has won him a few points, but the fact is, Venezuelans now as in the past are against open-ended reelections," Cabrera said. "They think, 'This benefits Hugo Chavez, not me as a person.' "
How deep a recession may be in store depends on how oil prices behave.
If they remain at today's levels, the government will see revenue from crude export sales fall by more than half this year compared with 2008, a devastating scenario for a country that relies on oil for 92% of exports and 60% of the government budget.
Venezuela collected an average price of $87 a barrel last year, but current prices for the "basket" of mostly heavy Venezuelan crude oil have fallen to less than $30. Chavez had ridden the oil price bonanza to expand public spending by 26% last year.
He may soon be looking at forced reductions of his domestic welfare projects and of foreign aid, including discounted oil.
"Chavez will be forced to make deep cuts in his socialistic projects and possibly devalue the bolivar," Venezuela's currency, said Gustavo Garcia, an economist at the Inter-American Development Bank in Washington. "Scarcities and inflation could worsen."
Curtailing spending on social projects will cut into much of Chavez's popular support, said pollster Alfredo Keller, particularly among the non-ideological poor who support him because they receive material benefits from the government.
The poor in Venezuela have benefited from increased education and medical coverage, but the official inflation rate hit 30% last month, the highest in Latin America, and prices of food items rose even more. Basic items such as rice, beans and chicken are often scarce as well as costly.
Residents grumble about funding for expensive foreign aid programs, including billions of dollars in discount oil sales to Cuba and Caribbean nations through the Petrocaribe aid program, while in their own country, social services crumble and violent crime flourishes.
As a result, Chavez has seen his once overwhelming electoral power among Venezuelans diminish in the last two nationwide elections.
Although his allies won 17 of 22 governorships in November and four of five mayoralties, they lost the three most populous and industrialized states, as well as the city halls of Caracas and of Sucre, a suburb of the capital that is home to one of Latin America's largest slums.
Chavez allies garnered 53% of the votes. By contrast, Chavez averaged 60% of votes cast in several elections from 1998 to 2006.
Political economist Luis Lander of Central University of Venezuela refuses to count Chavez out in next month's likely vote, saying that the president thinks he can win over the electorate through personal campaigning, much as he believes he salvaged half a dozen additional governorships in the November voting.
"The opposition is only focused on one thing, the departure of Chavez, to the point they can offer little in terms of competitive proposals," Lander said. "That's the dynamic of Venezuela's polarization."