“In Chávez’s Venezuela, the more we vote the less democracy we seem to get”.
In Venezuela we have both genuinely competitive, hard-fought elections and a system of government where real power has almost nothing to do with the outcomes of those elections. If that reality is never easy to explain to foreign observers, that’s because Venezuelan reality is contradictory not by accident, but by design. Over the years Hugo Chávez has mastered the subtle art of layering a measure of democratic procedure over a bulging substrate of authoritarianism. To call that reality that ensues contradictory is to belabor the obvious: Venezuela’s political system is as contradictory as the needs of its ruler.
On the one hand, Hugo Chávez is clear-headed enough to realize the absolute necessity of democratic legitimacy in the contemporary world. He grasps that 2010 is not 1958, that the days when the sheen of revolutionary exploits was enough to sustain the legitimacy of a leftist government in Latin American are long gone and that (a measure of) international respectability is only achievable through the ballot box these days.
On the other hand, Chávez doesn’t really hide the fact that he sees the ”give and take” of normal democratic practice as little more than a façade for bourgeois domination of the state, and alternation in power as no more “natural” than allowing the forces of evil to rule your homeland half the time. Naturally, then, Chávez remains deeply committed to the kind of authoritarian, top-down decision-making practices that cannot be reconciled with the habits of mind that are the lifeblood of democratic governance.
The result of these contradictory tendencies is a contradictory government. Chavismo understands that, to be viable, it needs both to hold periodic elections and to nullify them. These days, for chavismo, staying in power is an exercise precariously premised on both letting people vote and ensuring those votes have as little bearing as possible on the way the country is actually governed.
The pattern was set in 2007, when the government’s defeat in a referendum on constitutional reform was followed by an extraordinary outburst that saw the president describe the opposition’s win as “a victory of shit”, and vow to institute the each item of the defeated reform nonetheless. It was no idle threat: the speech was followed by a three year campaign to ensure that the reforms defeated at the ballot box were nonetheless instituted, by hook or by crook.
The pattern continued after the 2008 State and Local elections, when several of the largest cities and most populous states voted in opposition mayors and governors. Undaunted, Chávez moved decisively to show the electorate “who’s really boss” by stripping those opposition mayors and governors of as many resources and powers as possible, culminating in a sordid campaign to turn “Metropolitan Mayor of Caracas” into little more than an honorific title by clawing away more than 90% of the office’s budget (and corresponding responsibilities) from the winning opposition candidate and handing them to an appointed socialist bureaucrat.
And this year, when the electorate has sent chavismo its clearest rebuff yet – giving the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) a humiliating 48% of the vote in last month’s congressional election - the pattern seems set to renew itself once more, with the outgoing, overwhelming chavista National Assembly working decisively to nullify the election result.
One possible scenario would see the outgoing Assembly approve sweeping powers for the president to legislate by decree by rushing through a so-called “Enabling Law“. Such laws – originally designed to allow governments to act swiftly to deal with financial panics and other emergencies – have been used more and more often, on broader and broader policy areas and for longer and longer periods. Once the new Assembly is seated in January 2011, the government will no longer have the 3/5ths majority it takes to grant the president rule-by-decree powers, making the next few months into a key opportunity to relieve the president of the bothersome need to negotiate with opponents. A sweeping, multi-year Enablign Law would certainly achieve that, so it’s not surprising that trial balloons to this effect are already being floated by soon-to-be-unemployed chavista members of the outgoing Assembly eager to get on the autocrat’s good side before their gig is up.
Not that the Enabling route is the only trick up the outgoing assembly’s sleeve. The outgoing majority has already approved a radical new Communes Law that would superimpose a whole new stratum of government over those actually discussed in the constitution. A nationwide system of communes was originally proposed in the 2007 Constitutional Reform proposal that was defeated via Referendum. As if to underline once more the futility of trying to frustrate the government’s plans through the ballot box the Communes turned up again in a Law of dubious constitutionality pushed through by the chavista National Assembly in June this year.
With the Communes Law, the Chávez regime turns on its head the Chinese model of allowing a some of local democracy in is a single party dictatorship: the Communes establish single party dictatorships at thelocal level in what remains, nationally, a multi-party democracy. Open only to Socialists – worse, open only to those groups of socialists recognized as such by the president – the 200 communes being established nationwide will have their own law-making powers and courts – courts that, it goes without saying, will be composed only of socialists but will have jurisdiction over everyone. Often straddling pre-existing municipalities, they will be funded partly from the monies managed by democratically elected mayors. Charging them explicitly with paving the way for a transition from “bourgeois capitalism” to the socialist economic model, the chavista proponents of these unelected bodies proudly trumpet their contempt for the elected officials whose powers and prerogatives the communes will usurp.
These kinds of gambits – a sweeping Enabling Law, a radical Communes Law - need to be interpreted in the context of Chávez’s need to square the democratic-legitimacy-amid-authoritarian-rule circle. They’re the nuts and bolts of making sure that Venezuelan elections are both genuinely competitive and genuinely irrelevant. That the resulting system is incoherent to the point of schizophrenia almost goes without saying. Sustaining a façade of democratic legitimacy that grows thinner every year without ever quite disappearing, they’re designed to replicate in Venezuela the kind of political system that looks like nothing so much as the classic definition of Mexico under the PRI: a “perfect dictatorship”.
Francisco Toro is a Venezuelan journalist, political scientist and blogger. He edits since 2002 Caracas Chronicles, a well-known blog about Venezuela.