Venezuelans excited at the prospect of subjecting President Hugo Chavez to a recall vote should put their desire to vent aside and focus on the larger job of bringing stability to this Latin American state. Merely getting to the point that Chavez's fate will be decided by the democratic process is itself a victory, a damning vote of no-confidence in this self-styled populist leader. But whether Chavez goes or not, Venezuela faces a difficult time rebuilding its economy, establishing strong democratic institutions and bridging the class divides that Chavez has so successfully exploited.
Chavez maneuvered for months to avoid a recall, but the head of Venezuela's elections council announced this week that opponents had collected enough signatures to put the president's fate to a vote. Chavez's decision to yield rather than scuttle the recall shows his own realization that millions of Venezuelans are dissatisfied with his presidency. While a champion of the poor and the unemployed, Chavez is blamed by many business groups and professionals for dividing Venezuela along class lines and alienating the world community with his sharp rhetoric and leftist social agenda. The former paratrooper beat back a coup attempt in 2002, but a crippling strike that followed sparked an economic downturn that persists today.
Even if the wily president refrains from further sabotaging the recall process, he may not be ousted. The political opposition is united only by its shared desire to remove Chavez. Its leaders have no broad or energized electoral base, and they have not articulated an agenda for governing. The collapse of the 2003 strike helped consolidate Chavez's power and demoralize his critics.
The government-controlled electoral council must also prescribe the procedures for the vote. The council set the recall for Aug. 15, only four days before the cutoff allowing elections for a successor. Should the recall drag out beyond Aug. 19, some opponents fear a constitutional crisis over an attempt by Chavez to install his vice-president to fulfill the remainder of his term. Already, some armed pro-Chavez forces have harassed recall supporters. If Chavez turns up the heat before the vote, as he is expected to do, the referendum could be a prelude to wider violence irrespective of who wins.
It is encouraging to see at this early stage both sides adhere to the constitutional process for removing a president in mid-term. What could emerge, even if Chavez remains, is greater respect for democratic traditions and greater presidential accountability. The opposition needs to look beyond this election and create a blueprint to turn around Venezuela's sagging economy. The world's fifth-largest oil exporter should have money to reverse widespread poverty and maintain solid industrial growth. If Chavez stays through his term, to 2007, the opposition should at least leave the recall with a political agenda, an electoral base and the credibility to challenge Chavez in the next election.