Fourteen years of political polarization
The constituent process was followed by three long years of conflict. Large mass protests abounded in a political crisis stemming from measures and laws steering the country toward a presidential stranglehold. The boiling point was reached in the uprising that took place in 2002, removing Hugo Chávez from power and leading to an indefinite general strike in December 2002, which concluded with approximately 20 thousand employees fired from the oil industry
A political campaign doused with menacing language, offering to abolish the past, featured the promise of a Constituent Assembly to pave the legal way for a new state: the Fifth Republic.
The country's polarization made its presence felt for the first time, never to leave again. What no expert could foresee back then was that, 14 years later, the actual winner of that political race would be running in his fourth elections, seeking to hold office for 20 years.
Though Hugo Chávez did not ramble on about socialism at the time, he made his mark on the political scene as a hegemonic leader, discrediting his adversaries and harboring division. An outcome at the polls of 56.20% in favor of Hugo Chávez and 43.80% for his counterpart signaled the start of an autocratic cycle.
On April 25, 1999, only three and a half months after beginning his mandate, Chávez summoned a binding referendum, which if approved would give way to a Constituent Assembly. The proposal was approved by 87.75% of the votes cast.
On June 25, elections were held to nominate the members of the Constituent Assembly. A total of 1,171 candidates were in the running, 80% of them opposing Hugo Chávez. The official sector developed a strategy labeled as "Chávez's Keno" through which selected candidates were bunched up into a single card, along with their respective numbers. Facing nearly 900 opposition candidates, Chávez's list won 95% of the seats in the Constituent Assembly, leaving only 6 opposition members in the legislative body.
A new Constitution was approved by a new referendum held on December 15, 1999, with 71.78% of votes in favor and 28.22% against. Once more, a large majority of the country marched to the beat of the new ruler's drum.
General elections under a new Constitution
The official sector, to ratify public offices, proposed general elections to be held on June 30, 2000.
Under this context, former military commander Francisco Arias Cárdenas, who was no longer within the ranks of Chávez's supporters, became a presidential candidate; as well as Claudio Fermín, a former Democratic Action leader and one of the 6 opposition members of the Constituent Assembly.
With an abstention rate of 43.7%, the highest ever for presidential elections, Hugo Chávez was ratified as president with 59.76% of the votes over his former ally and coup d'état accomplice, who had a total of 37.52 % of the votes, whereas Claudio Fermín bid farewell to politics, garnering only 2.72% of voters' support.
The official sector's supremacy consolidated even further with the election of the National Assembly, which had now become a single-chamber Parliament. Chávez's party, then called Movement for the V Republic, got 92 out of 165 seats in the new Parliament.
2004 Referendum and Regional Elections
The constituent process was followed by three long years of conflict. Large mass protests abounded in a political crisis stemming from measures and laws steering the country toward a presidential stranglehold. The boiling point was reached in the uprising that took place in 2002, removing Hugo Chávez from power and leading to an indefinite general strike in December 2002, which concluded with approximately 20 thousand employees fired from the oil industry.
Once the strike ended, opposition leaders resorted to democratic means to deal with Chávez. After several botched attempts, a recall referendum on Hugo Chávez's mandate was held, following a petition containing 3.6 million signatures. Objections by the governing body and court rulings led to verification of signatures, and the electoral council ended up accepting 2,436,830 of those signatures, thus meeting the requirement for the recall referendum. The outcome was favorable for the "NO" option, which meant that Chávez would remain in office, with a total of 5,800,629 votes in favor, that is, 59.10%, whereas the "YES" option calling for him to step down garnered 3,989,008, that is, 40.64%. Despite defeat, the opposition sector regained a large part of the support it had gradually lost since 1998.
On October 31 of that same year, regional elections were held. Abstention throughout the country was recorded at 54.24%, and Hugo Chávez's partisans won 20 out of the 22 state government offices available as well as most of the mayor's offices (83%) in elections that had the opposition divided. Only the governors of Nueva Esparta and Zulia states belonged to the opposition, and mainstay states like Carabobo and Miranda were lost.
A year later, on December 4, 2005, parliamentary elections took place. Pessimism and mistrust of the electoral system abounded within the opposition. Democratic Action called for abstention, supported by Copei. A sector of opposition party Primero Justicia, led by Leopoldo López, backed that stance, whereas Henrique Capriles and Julio Borges opposed. In the end, however, abstention prevailed. Opposition organizations joined in. At the time, political parties PPT and PODEMOS were still sided with the government. The outcome was parliamentary elections for 165 representatives, entirely aligned with the official sector, and a process marred by an abstention rate of 74.74 %.
2006: opposition comeback
Led by Julio Borges, Manuel Rosales and Teodoro Petkoff, the opposition urged its followers to take part in the presidential elections set for December 3, 2006. After acknowledging that it was a mistake to abstain from taking part in the past parliamentary elections, these leaders encouraged all opposition sectors to head into contention. Following a brief campaign, Manuel Rosales, leader of political party Un Nuevo Tiempo, was nominated presidential candidate based on surveys.
Once again, Hugo Chávez prevailed with 7,309,080 votes, which represented 62.85 % over the opposition's 4,292,466 votes, amounting to 36.91 %. This was Hugo Chávez's broadest margin in all successive voting processes leading to the October 2012 elections. For the opposition, it marked a democratic trail to follow and the beginning of a unification process.
Translated by Félix Rojas Alva
That political protest in Venezuela has lost momentum seems pretty obvious: people are no longer building barricades to block off streets near Plaza Francia in Altamira (eastern Caracas), an anti-government stronghold; no new images have been shown of brave and dashing protesters with bandanna-covered faces clashing with the National Guard in San Cristóbal, in the western state of Táchira; and those who dreamed of a horde of "Gochos" (Tachirans) descending in an avalanche to stir up revolt in Caracas have been left with no option but to wake up to reality.