Critical as I've been toward Hugo Chavez recently, I have to admit that he's no Vladimir Putin. That's demonstrated by the giant demonstrations he has not prevented from taking place against his referendum on constitutional reform. Granted, a favorable comparison to Putin isn't much, but it's worth noting at a moment when Chavez may find himself in a no-win situation in the eyes of the world.
Polls have appeared indicating that a majority of Venezuelans may now oppose the referendum package, which is apparently an all-or-nothing deal. Because Chavez has to an extent created cause for suspicion about his ultimate motives and ambitions, critics are now more likely than ever to cry Fraud if the referendum passes. It'll be akin to November 2004 in Ohio when the exit polls pointed to a Kerry win and have permanently clouded Bush's apparent victory there, which clinched his re-election.
Opinion polls are not an objective measure of the mood of a population. Just this week we Americans have been treated to polls that predict defeat for Senator Clinton at the hands of most Republican candidates, followed by polls that predict her victory. They really serve no good purpose, and in some cases might be subversive of real democracy.
Think what you will about what happened in Ohio, but do you really want to say that any sort of poll is a more reliable measure of public opinion than an actual election? More likely, apart from their sole practical purpose of inspiring politicians to pander and compromise their principles, polls allow defeated candidates to exploit the system's inconsistencies and suggest that elections have been stolen. This isn't to say that elections aren't stolen, only a warning that polls alone aren't perfect proof of the crime. Nevertheless, now that useful polls have appeared, Venezuelan dissidents are certain to say, should Chavez win, that he stole the election. That's what makes this a no-win situation for Chavez, the other option, of course, being that the referendum fails.
The irony of the situation is that, should Chavez lose the referendum and admit defeat, that will be the best possible evidence that the fears that will have driven people to vote against his plan were unjustified, or at least less justified than we've thought. In that case it may not be a no-win situation after all, but I doubt that Chavez would be thrilled with the prospect of winning by losing, especially since he did that already, in a sense, after his failed coup d'etat attempt back in the 1990s. On the other hand, who'd think that a failed coup plotter could go on to win a fair election? A properly chastised Chavez could try again later and possibly get some of what he wants once he figures out, if it turns out that he hasn't already, how to win more people's trust. But we should probably wait out the weekend before we speculate further.