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Referendums Don't Always Go The Gov't Way

By Stephen Kaufman
USINFO Staff Writer

National Referendums Do Not Always Go the Government's Way

Many analysts are expressing surprise over the rejection of a referendum on a series of constitutional changes that were designed to increase Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's authority over his country, his first electoral defeat since assuming power in 1998.

The measure, which would have approved a long list of amendments to the 1999 constitution, such as abolishing presidential term limits, reducing the autonomy of Venezuela's central bank, and allowing media censorship and the suspension of civil liberties in times of emergency, was defeated by voters on December 2.

"It was a close vote, 51 percent, and that's despite the opposition not being able to get out on TV and make its point. So I think that there's some interesting analysis that can be done there by political experts," White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said December 3.

The setback to Chavez's ambitions is not the first time a government has seen its quest for expanded authority defeated via referendum. While a referendum is a form of direct democracy, governments may be able to manipulate the vote by controlling its timing, as well as the language used to explain the ballot measures. But voter rejection puts an immediate end to a government's aspirations, unless it resorts to outright tyranny.

In May and June 2005, the people of France and the Netherlands dealt a blow to efforts to establish a single constitution for members of the European Union, rejecting the European Parliament's authority to draft the document for reasons ranging from national sovereignty concerns to anti-globalization sentiments.

Following those votes, the governments of Denmark, Ireland and the United Kingdom, each of which supported the proposed EU constitution and also had committed to holding referendums, delayed or stopped their preparations for a vote.

In another example, Chile's former military ruler Augusto Pinochet, after using referendums to replace the country's constitution and prolong his regime, presented himself as the sole candidate in a 1988 referendum that was called to grant him a second eight-year term. Fifty-six percent of Chileans voted "no" to the additional term, sealing the end of Pinochet's regime and paving the way for a transition from military to democratic rule.

U.S. election ballots often include referendums and initiatives, but only at the state and local levels. Some, such as constitutional architect James Madison, feared what he called "the tyranny of the majority" that would result from the use of initiatives at the federal level.

The system for changing the United States Constitution is designed to be cumbersome and does not allow the executive branch to take the initiative directly. As laid out in Article 5 of the Constitution, the president is dependent on the U.S. Congress or two-thirds of U.S. state legislatures to request any constitutional amendment he or she might favor. Then, in order to ratify the amendment, three-fourths of U.S. state legislatures or state conventions would need to approve it.


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