Now, Chávez, 49, faces another big test. After months of struggle, his opponents -- who have banded together in a coalition called Democratic Coordinator -- have collected enough signatures to force a recall vote on Aug. 15. On June 3, Venezuela's National Electoral Council cne) declared that more than the required 2.4 million signatures were valid. That marked a breakthrough for the opposition, since Chávez had earlier alleged that many signatures were fraudulent and the CNE required the opposition to get more than 1 million people to sign petitions again.
Opposition figures are now predicting victory. "We're going to win the referendum, not just to get [Chávez] out of power but also to end the misery" of the Venezuelan people, declared opposition leader and state governor Enrique Mendoza as campaigning got under way.
Much is at stake. Venezuela, the world's fifth-largest oil exporter, has seen widespread unrest as the country has split over Chávez. A strike in late 2002 and early 2003 shut down the oil industry for two months, causing the economy to contract 9.4% last year and contributing to rising global prices. Two more years of Chávez -- his current term ends in 2007 -- would mean more uncertainty. And if Chávez stays in power and runs again, he would have six more years to implement his controversial plans to redistribute wealth and boost living standards of the 80% of Venezuelans living under the poverty line.
Despite the opposition's optimism, however, it would be unwise to count the wily President out. While polls show that only 28% of Venezuelans back Chávez, the opposition has the support of just 38% of voters -- and the rest are undecided. "This campaign has to be directed at the neutrals," says Luis Vicente León, director of local polling company Datanálisis.
A look at Venezuela's political landscape makes it clear that the fractured opposition has no front-running candidate to challenge Chávez. The opposition is split among leaders such as the center-right Mendoza, Oxford-educated liberal lawyer Julio Borges, and Pompeyo Márquez, a longtime leftist. Little unites them beyond their desire to get Chávez out of office. "People are being asked to vote either for or against Chávez, but they have no idea what the alternative is," says Michael Rowan, director of Corporate Strategy and Communications, a local consultancy.
While the opposition struggles to hone its message, Chávez is grabbing the moral high ground. He has gone from blasting his foes to welcoming the new exercise in "participative democracy." In a TV address on June 3, he declared: "I accept the challenge. Now the game can begin."
Chávez has the equipment to play the game effectively. He is expected to use a special $2 billion fund that is drawn from oil revenues to set up new social programs that could attract undecided voters. The rules of the referendum -- as set out in Chávez' 1999 constitution -- also give the President a leg up. To win, the opposition will have to secure more votes than Chávez received when he was reelected in 2000 -- that is, more than 3.76 million. Even if Chávez loses the referendum, he would get another chance to run for President in a new election that would be called within 30 days -- as long as Venezuela's Supreme Court approves of him running. Chances of a positive court decision could be strong, since Chávez appointed a majority of the members.
As election fever heats up, both sides are calling their supporters onto the streets. If passions get out of control, violence could influence the outcome. But for now, the safest bet would be that Chávez' political career is far from over. By Stephen Ixer