The reaction by Venezuela's opposition to the failed effort to recall President Hugo Chavez was disorganized and misguided. The two dozen groups behind the recall never worked together on a political message, never focused their efforts and never acknowledged the reality of Chavez's populist appeal. Every recent attempt to oust Chavez outside the electoral process - from a short-lived coup in 2002 to failed labor strikes - has only burnished his image as the people's champion against the old ruling class.
Chavez handily defeated the recall, according to state and international observers. The country's Chavez-dominated National Electoral Council put his win at 58 to 42 percent, huge for what was expected to be a much closer race. While the opposition cried fraud, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and the Organization of American States quickly added weight to the results, saying their independent monitoring showed that Chavez had won and that the opposition's polling, showing him to have lost, was "quite unreliable." Carter called on opponents to accept the results and on Chavez to reach out to critics.
Ousting Chavez before his term expires in 2006 never should have been the opposition's priority. The opposition's postelection call for street protests is only another distraction that plays into his authoritarian hand. Chavez has energized a base by spending billions on health and social programs, and by portraying attacks on him as proxy warfare on the poor. His latest victory may further consolidate his power and fracture any drive for national reconciliation.
The opposition has an interest in keeping that from happening. Indeed, two more years of Chavez's misrule may bring together the broad range of disaffected groups - from business and labor leaders to the middle class and the Catholic Church - and forge a return to stability in Venezuela after 2006. Labor and business leaders have a stake in improving life for the poor and opening up the nation's electoral process.
Chavez doesn't need any help in coming across as a divider with an unstable hand on power. What Venezuelans need is a genuine alternative - a candidate who would use the country's vast natural resources to bring the nation together and make it competitive economically. Chavez won two years, but however lopsided the vote, the rejection by 42 percent of voters leaves him weakened. The opposition has plenty to work with, if it drops its obsession with Chavez and articulates a vision for governing.