It is time for President Hugo Chávez's opponents to stop pretending that they speak for most Venezuelans. They do not, as the failure of a recall referendum, promoted by the opposition, decisively demonstrated on Sunday. The reason Mr. Chávez survived the challenge, despite his authoritarian impulses, is not hard to figure out. Unlike most of his recent predecessors, he has made programs directed at the everyday problems of the poor - illiteracy, the hunger for land and inferior health care - the central theme of his administration, and he has been able to use higher-than-expected oil revenues to advance social welfare. Some of his programs have been poorly designed and shamelessly used to build and mobilize political support. All the same, they are understandably appreciated by the millions of Venezuelans who have felt like the neglected stepchildren of the country's oil boom.
Mr. Chávez's brand of democracy is not one this page endorses, for Venezuela or anywhere else. It is marred by court packing, judicial intimidation of political opponents and demagogic, divisive speeches, including the frequent inflammatory demonizing of the United States, Venezuela's biggest oil customer. More than a decade ago, while still an army officer, Mr. Chávez led a bloody military coup, which failed. But since his election as president in 1998, he has broadly respected constitutional norms - as Sunday's vote itself made clear. That is more than can be said for his opponents, who backed a briefly successful military coup attempt in 2002 and have led four national strikes aimed at bringing down the elected government.
Mr. Chávez would do well to build on his referendum victory by turning down the invective, reaching out to opponents and trying to heal his bitterly divided country. In the past, he has been vindictive, rather than magnanimous, in victory. Encouragingly, he offered the opposition words of praise on Monday morning instead of the usual abuse. He should follow this up with conciliatory steps, like dropping the prosecution of Alejandro Plaz, María Corina Machado and two other organizers of the anti-Chávez referendum drive, who are being investigated on suspicion of conspiracy to commit treason because their organization accepted funds from the National Endowment for Democracy, an agency sponsored by the United States Congress.
The opposition, meanwhile, needs to stop shouting foul. It ran a generally inept referendum campaign, failing to unite around a single, credible challenger to Mr. Chávez and failing to distance itself adequately from the oligarchic politics of the discredited past. A healthy Venezuelan democracy needs not just a less divisive Mr. Chávez. It also needs a more realistic and effective opposition.