Commentary on the recent Venezuelan referendum, particularly among foreign observers, has turned into a rather tiresome to and fro between self-satisfied opponents of Chávez, who like to think that the Bolivarian revolution has been stopped in its tracks, and equally self-satisfied supporters, who think they have refuted the claims of Chávez’s dictatorial tendencies.
The referendum has also been interpreted as a weathervane for the region’s Left Turns as a whole. With the Bolivian constitutional process also stymied, Lula quiescent, Bachelet unpopular, and the Kirchners apparently reinstating Peronist husband-and-wife politics as usual, have we reached the high water mark for Latin America’s renascent left movements?
But in all this discussion, the central point has been lost: that the process of setting constitutions registers a balance of forces between constituent and constituted power.
In fact, the referendum’s obvious winner was Chávez, as the President himself observed when he termed the wafer-thin margin a “Pyrrhic victory” for the opposition. The escuálidos would have been much happier had the poll gone the other way: they were apparently already handing out t-shirts that declared the result was a “fraud,” and even now a week later they continue to propagate conspiracy theories, fuelled for instance by pillars of social democracy such as Jorge Castañeda, alleging that the military had to persuade a reluctant premier to accept the will of the people. Denied the outrage they had counted on, they have had to manufacture it for themselves. As always, the anti-chavistas are such a pitiful sight that, were I Venezuelan, they would almost inspire me to go out and sign up for a PSUV party card out of spite.
In fact, Chávez’s dignified response to defeat enabled him to appear statesmanlike (not an adjective usually applied to a mercurial figure who won recent headlines for trying the King of Spain’s patience) and, more importantly, sovereign, as Stephanie Blankenburg observes in one of the few decent articles to have appeared in the past few weeks.
For constitutions are all about defining and upholding sovereignty. Any alteration to the constitution is also potentially a threat to constituted power: in the passage between constitutions, the state is temporarily ungrounded. Everything is up for grabs, however briefly. There’s no better example of that than the crisis currently affecting Bolivia, where even a hundred-year grievance over the site of the national capital has been thrown into the mix.
Meanwhile, the ongoing deadlock in Belgium, let alone the slow-motion catastrophe that is the process of European integration, both demonstrate that threats to constituted power abound as much in the North as in the South. We’re living in an era of global reconstitution.
And so the defeat of Venezuela’s proposed constitutional changes could be read as an affirmation of the country’s current (hardly any less chavista) constitution and current head of state. Indeed, that’s precisely how Chávez’s defenders have portrayed the situation: as an endorsement of the institutional mechanisms cemented in place by the 1999 constitution, from the National Electoral Council (Consejo Nacional Electoral or CNE) to the clauses that regulate constitutional amendment itself.
In other words, at least at first sight, the rejection of the referendum is a victory for constituted power, and a defeat for constituent power.
Chávez concedes, constitution in hand.
But the situation is rather more complicated. For the proposed constitutional reforms were very clearly generated within the state apparatus, rather than from outside and against it. Heinz Dietrich blames an entire “New Political Class” that he argues has sprung up and accreted to an increasingly sclerotic Bolivarian revolution. More revealing still are the complaints from Chávez supporters that the electoral defeat resulted from a failure to explain the proposals clearly and persuasively enough to the movement’s base. Not only is this an unrepentant admission that the process was conceived as a top-down campaign to court consent. It also shows that what is at stake is a project for hegemony. And the mass abstention that led to electoral downfall is a sign that Chávez’s hegemonic project is seriously frayed around the edges.
That the same result should be a victory for constituted power and at the same time a demonstration of the failure of hegemony should be no surprise. Constituted power has never depended upon hegemony.
What then of constituent power? Perhaps the fact that some three million people failed to vote shows a new development in Venezuela: an Exodus from the mechanisms designed to consolidate the Bolivarian state. Chávez’s relationship with this subaltern excess has always been precarious and contingent, as he himself is fully aware. Hence the President is always in campaign mode, endlessly trying to reconstruct the political by insisting on the classical distinction between “friend” and “enemy.” If the force of this interpellation is now fading, if people are happy not to vote or to vote “no” even when the choice in terms of the defense of national sovereignty, then chavistas have reason to worry.
But it’s the anti-Chávez camp that has most to lose. For if the current president is no longer to keep the forces of constituent power in check, then who can?