For the second time in 15 months, Venezuelans head to the polls on Sunday to vote on ending presidential term limits, potentially allowing Hugo Chávez to remain in power for life. The idea was already defeated in 2007, but El Comandante is graciously giving the people a second chance to get the answer right.
The outcome is anybody's guess. Just two months ago, polls showed large majorities opposed the proposal, but that gap has vanished in the wake of a brazenly illegal campaign that has enlisted all the resources of the Venezuelan petrostate on the side of the government.
The litany of abuses is long: "Vote Si" propaganda decorates public spaces ranging from schools, hospitals and state government offices to Venezuela's tax-collecting agency, the national worker re-training institute, the State-owned steel maker, and the seat of the National Assembly itself. Nearly every government website sports a "Si" banner ad. State-owned electric utility crews are tasked with putting up Si signs. Civil servants are strong-armed into "volunteering" and into raising funds for the Si campaign. The eleven state owned TV channels and the literally hundreds of pro-government radio stations broadcast "Si" propaganda round the clock.
Nothing is off-limits. "Si" messages get piped into the Caracas Metro, over the tannoy. The government even sees the referendum question itself as an appropriate setting for a spot of campaigning: the rambling, 77-word question echoes Si campaign themes with language about "broadening people's political rights", but never mentions term limits at all.
Perhaps most worrying is that PDVSA, Venezuela's state-owned oil giant, is now in on the game. In January, a massive convoy of PDVSA tanker-trucks paraded through the streets of Caracas, decked out in "Si" propaganda. Cars parked at PDVSA parking lots have their windows decorated with "Si"s, in big white letters, whether the driver likes it or not. Reuters reports that, on a recent visit to the Energy Ministry, one oil industry executive found the building nearly empty: the civil servants had been "voluntarily" marched off to a "Si" rally.
And those are just the abuses I could find links to document!
In effect, Chávez has turned the Venezuelan state itself into an appendage of the Si campaign.
The use of state resources for party political purposes is both illegal and unconstitutional in Venezuela. But with die-hard Chávez loyalists installed in every key post in the state - and, notably, throughout the court system - no institution is able to check these abuses. The collapse of the separation of powers leaves the government with a free hand to flout legal and constitutional norms that, ironically, chavistas themselves drafted less than a decade ago.
The government campaign is centered on a simple message: Voting "Si" does not mean making Chávez president for life. It means giving the people the chance to re-elect him as many times as they want. The proposal would expand people's political rights, they say, by removing an arbitrary restriction on their choice of candidates. Voters will always get the final say, through free and fair elections.
It's an argument that refutes itself. The massive abuse of state resources we've already seen tells us all we need to know about how fair those future elections would be. In addition to the natural advantages of incumbency, Chávez's perpetual re-election bids would be able to leverage all the resources at the disposal of the overwhelmingly dominant power-center in Venezuelan society today: the petrostate itself.
Where there are no checks on the abuse of state resources for partisan advantage, elections can't be fair. And where elections are not fair, their results can't be democratic.