It's the re-election, stupid!

Quico says: I’m frankly disheartened by the way the debate on Constitutional Reform has gone so far. The Opposition has decided to focus on an abstract, procedural and ultimately doomed call for the reform proposal to be voted on article-by-article rather than as a block. Others have taken the government’s bait, criticizing the minutiae of the reform proposal: the bits on private property, for instance, or on the six hour work day.

It’s not that these issues are not important, it’s that they’re moot: the government’s ability to do these things doesn’t depend on what the constitution says. Chávez doesn’t need to reform the constitution to nationalize whole sectors of the economy (ask EDC or CANTV). He can – and has – made radical reforms to the labor market by decree, without having to change even the law, much less the constitution.

In fact, most of his stated rationale for constitutional reform is transparently bogus: we’re told it’s needed so the government can start doing things it has been doing for years, even decades. Reform, we’re told, is a precondition for the status quo.

Hay que aterrizar. Chavismo has never recognized the principle of constitutionally-limited executive power. None of the institutions set out in the 1999 constitution to rein in the executive are operational. Without effective limits on executive power, without the rule of law, without any form of functioning oversight, it makes no sense to argue about the specific new powers the reform would technically grant the executive. These are powers he already has, in practice if not in law.

The debate over “soft constitution” reforms is more than just useless, more than just absurd: it’s actually counterproductive. It muddies the waters. It plays into the government’s hand, propping up chavismo’s Potemkin Constitutionalism, its increasingly threadbare simulation of constitutional legality.

The only reform that makes a difference is the abolition of presidential term limits and the extension of the president’s term: that’s hard constitution stuff. That’s the only goodie the government can only get by changing the constitution. In practical terms, that’s the only thing that would be different if the reform is approved.

Barely ten days after the reforms were unveiled, the Opposition has already lost sight of this basic reality. They’ve already turned their focus away from a transcendent, resonant issue that the voters overwhelmingly agree with them on to a dry, lifeless, technical-juridical debate nobody sane could care about. It’s not even September yet and they’re already out chasing red (very red) herrings.

When this whole thing started, my only question was how the opposition could manage to blow its huge lead in the early polls. The answer should’ve been obvious from the start: by failing to coordinate, letting the government set the agenda, focusing on peripheral issues and taking the spotlight off of the issues where most voters agree with them. Here we go again.