A few opponents of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez shouted “Now he’s going away!” after voters defeated constitutional changes that could have made him dictator for life. But Chávez remains president until 2012, and he can make a comeback unless the opposition unites aro-und a program that addresses the popular discontent.

Since he became president in 1998, Chávez has survived a coup attempt, a recall campaign, and two re-election contests while gathering to himself the power to dispense the oil wealth of Venezuela, about $60 billion a year. This year, however, the opposition was energised by an infusion of students and the endorsement of Raul Baduel, an influential retired defense minister and former Chávez stalwart.

The opposition is an eclectic collection, including Communists, Catholics, state governors, and people worried that Chávez was subverting the constitution. Not all of these groups will remain together, but they must not revert to their habits of electoral boycotts. Instead, new leadership needs to emerge to fuse the interests of the poor with those who are better off. The vote Sunday shows the Chávez government is not invincible. The opposition needs to seize this opportunity to create a new political alignment in Venezuela, before the almost-president-for-life recovers.