December 6 Venezuela Parliamentary Elections On Even Keel: Litmus Test for Chavismo, Opportunity for Opposition

Global Centre Stage

The United States has been insistent that the democratic process required for the constitution be honoured. The United States has called on other friends of Venezuela to put pressure on Caracas to do so but with limited success

The Venezuela parliamentary elections, now confirmed for December, may represent the first turning point in national politics since the now deceased former President Hugo Chavez was elected for the first time in 1998. Public opinion polls indicate that the 29-party opposition may win a majority in the legislature for the first time since Chavez came to power. That, if it happens, would dramatically change the dynamics of national politics.

Since the 1999 Constitutional Assembly elections, the National Assembly has been dominated by alliances supportive of the “Chavista” movement. In the 2005 parliamentary elections, most of the opposition parties decided to withdraw – now seen as a tactical miscalculation – resulting in all seats being won by the Fifth Republic Movement and other parties supportive of Chavez. In the 2010 elections, an alliance of opposition parties was formed by the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) to contest the elections, and managed to win 64 seats. The PSUV, an alliance formed by Chavez from the Fifth Republic Movement (an earlier organisation), won 96 seats, maintaining their majority, but losing their two-thirds and three-fifths super-majority. ‘Fatherland for All’, a small left-of-centre party, won two seats.

The announcement by the National Electoral Council (CNE), that the elections would take place, followed a meeting between State Department Counsellor Thomas Shannon, a former assistant secretary of state for Latin America, and the president of the National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello. The United States has been insistent that the democratic process required for the constitution be honoured. The United States has called on other friends of Venezuela to put pressure on Caracas to do so but with limited success.

There had been some doubt all through 2015 whether the government would actually schedule the elections. The electoral law does not specify when Assembly elections must take place, only that the new Assembly must be seated by January 6, 2016. At times, the CNE appeared ready to postpone or even cancel the elections but sufficient international – and domestic – pressure appears to have persuaded them that the risks were too high to ignore the constitution. Speaking on national television following the CNE statement, President Maduro said that the scheduled date for elections is the 17th anniversary of Hugo Chavez election in 1998.

Shannon travelled to Caracas earlier this year for talks with President Nicolas Maduro, Chavez’s successor, after the United States imposed sanctions against seven high-ranking Venezuelan officials. The United States has also insisted that the Venezuelan government releases all political prisoners, especially the leaders of the opposition – Leopoldo Lopez is the most prominent and currently in a military prison. He has been held without trial since February 2014 on accusation of inciting violence during the bloody street protests against the government in 2014. Lopez went on a hunger strike as a means of pressuring the Maduro government to schedule the vote. There was growing concern that Lopez’s death would gravely exacerbate the political crisis in the country. His family announced that Lopez would end his hunger strike following the announcement of the electoral date.

Washington has also insisted that Caracas allow international observers monitor the vote but the government has announced that only observers from UNASUR – Union of South American Nations – will be allowed to do so. The Organisation of American States (OAS) and the European Union (EU) have also urged the government to allow their representatives to observe the electoral process.

While the date of the elections is now firm, the outcome remains unpredictable. The electoral system favours the government. Starting with the December 2015 elections, the 167 members of the Assembly will be elected by a mixed majoritarian system – 113 members to be elected by first-past-the-post voting in 87 constituencies. A total of 51 seats will be elected by a closed list proportional representation based on the 23 states and the Capital District. Seats are allocated using the d’Hondt method. The remaining three seats are reserved for indigenous people, and elected by the community of indigenous people.

It is clear that the government hopes to eke out a majority with the new electoral procedures. They have done so in the past with success. In the last election in 2010, the government and allied parties won only 48.1 percent of the votes but ended up with 59 percent of the 165 deputies. It is expected that this time the government will attempt to minimise the opposition turnout and motivate the PSUV base. There is also widespread concern that, ultimately, the government will not allow the opposition a victory even if the votes are in their favour. Electoral fraud has been alleged in past elections to favour the government candidates.

What appears to favour the opposition this year is the dismal economic situation. Falling oil prices have reduced the ability of the government to distribute favours. There is a serious financial crisis and the security situation has deteriorated dramatically. There are increasing shortages of food and supplies in the supermarkets. President Maduro is increasingly unpopular and is widely viewed as a poor substitute for Hugo Chavez. Maduro narrowly won the presidential election after Chavez died of cancer in 2013. Key for the opposition’s performance will be voter turnout.

Polling data indicate a relatively strong position for the opposition. Chavismo has lost much of its attraction for many Venezuelans. But the movement controls every institution of the state, especially the security forces and the armed forces. There is fear that a perceived manipulation of the election outcome will generate the sort of violence and bloodshed of 2014 as the opposition claims victory.

Background

Hugo Chavez was an unlikely candidate for the presidency of Venezuela. After a long military dictatorship, democracy was established in 1958. The political opposition had come together to negotiate the Pact of Punto Fijo. Party leaders agreed to respect the electoral process and, more important, to share power according to voting results. The spirit of a transparent political truce would determine the distribution of cabinet posts, state jobs and government contracts. The resulting spoiled system would guarantee the political survival of all signatories to the Pact. What’s noteworthy was the exclusion of the Communist Party of Venezuela (PCV). Two political parties merged as the leaders of the democratic consolidation – Democratic Action (AD) and Christian Democracy (COPEI).

An important understanding among the signatories was that in return for a commitment of political neutrality, the armed forces would receive substantial improvements in salaries and equipment, a pledge of amnesty and public recognition of their patriotic services. Younger officers agreed to these terms as a means to enhance the overall professional standing of the military and erase the stigma of association with a dictatorship.

The first democratically elected president in 1958, Romulo Betancourt (AD) established a centrist economic programme. Nationalisation and expropriation of private party were generally avoided. While the role of the state expanded, private enterprise was central to the development of the national economy. An increasingly important oil producer, the Betancourt government was a leader in establishing a producers’ cartel known by its initials as OPEC. The government passed an agrarian reform law in 1960, calling for expropriation but with compensation. This allowed both landlords and peasants to benefit.

A guerrilla movement in the early 1960s, supported by Fidel Castro, brought the security forces into public action for the last time in decades. The insurgents were defeated and there were no further serious challenges to Venezuelan democracy until the appearance of Hugo Chavez in the 1990s. The armed forces withdrew from public life, it seemed.

Subsequent elections led to the victory of Raul Leoni (AD) and Rafael Caldera (COPEI). In 1974, a new generation of political leaders emerged, led by Carlos Andres Perez, known as CAP, who was elected in 1974 on the AD ticket. Following his election, OPEC cut back on production in order to raise world oil prices; Venezuela suddenly received a $10 billion windfall. In 1975, CAP raised the income tax on oil companies from 63.5 percent to 70 percent. A subsequent law nationalised the petroleum industry and created a state-run company, later known as PDVSA, which would take direct part in petroleum production. Commentators began to refer to “Saudi Venezuela” as state revenues increased and number of public works projects was put in place.

CAP was followed by AD and COPEI presidents. Democratic electoral politics appeared consolidated. The economy performed fairly well. Venezuela was frequently held up as a model of modern democracy in a region where there were only a few other similar regimes. Suddenly, a darker side of Venezuelan democracy emerged with the re-election of CAP in 1979. He imposed a programme of stringent neo-liberal economic reforms; there were sharp increase in the prices of gasoline and public transportation, including bus fares. Enraged citizens of Caracas took to the streets to protest the reforms that undermined their expectation of permanent government subsidies. CAP called on the military to restore order; skirmishes broke out; looting took place. Dozens were killed and many more wounded. The armed forces were again at the front and centre in national politics, and were dismayed that they were called on to shoot fellow Venezuelans.

In February 1992, a group of paratroopers mounted an unsuccessful coup under the leadership of a young, unknown colonel named Hugo Chavez. Suddenly, Chavez was a household name. He appeared on national television after surrendering and stated that he had failed only “por ahora” (for now). Few in the elite took that seriously. Imprisoned briefly, he began to sharply criticise the concept of Punto Fijo after his release. Venezuelans began to protest about growing corruption in the political elites. Organised workers demonstrated over wages. Recent migrants to the city were underemployed and underpaid, and demanded social services and economic opportunities. The seeds of Chavismo were being planted.

The citizens began to reject traditional political parties as well as the electoral process. Voter turnout dropped from a peak of 96 percent in 1973, to 88 percent in 1978 and 1983, 82 percent in 1988, and 60 percent in the 1990s. In the meantime, the combined vote for AD plus COPEI plunged from around 90 percent in the presidential elections of 1978-88 to 45 percent in 1993 to merely 11 percent in 1998. A massive void had opened in the political process. During the 1990s, persistent inflation sharply reduced buying power. Poverty increased and a new “informal sector” emerged on the streets of the major cities. The elites appeared oblivious; Chavez was not.

Born to poverty, Chavez developed an anti-establishment posture as a young military officer. He resented the country’s economic oligarchy and the effete and corrupt political leadership. Preparing for the 1998 election, he organised a new political party called the “Fifth Republic Movement,” known by the Spanish-language acronym MVR. The charismatic forty-four year old mounted a whirlwind campaign and presented himself as a latter-day Simon Bolivar, the founder of the country. His major campaign themes were corruption and the increasing plight of the poor in an allegedly rich country. The polling indicated that the poor and the disenchanted middle class endorsed Chaves; the traditional political elites supported an independent candidate, Henrique Salas Romer. Chavez received 56.2 percent of the vote and took office in February 1999. Punto Fijo was dead; Chavismo took its place with little opposition and a great deal of enthusiasm from the poor who had been previously marginalised.

Chavez moved quickly to consolidate his rule. A new constitution was written, the Supreme Court was dismantled, the elected legislature was disbanded and a unicameral legislature created. Re-election of the president was established and Chavez won the July 2000 election with 59.8 percent of the vote. There was only one national political leader thereafter. But the leader needed resources. However, investment was anaemic as investors were unsure of the climate of doing business. Oil prices were low, reducing petroleum revenues. There was one obvious source of new money – PDVSA. Chavez fired the leadership in 2002; oil workers went out on strike and consequently, many lost their jobs. A once widely admired state corporation was now politicised in the service of the Bolivarian state.

A crisis erupted in April 2002 as opposition forces demanded Chavez’s resignation. Violence erupted. Military leaders arrested Chavez on the charge that he had ordered gunmen to open fire on the crowd, killing at least fourteen people. A transitional government took office, led by business leader Pedro Carmona, and began to dismantle the Chavistas state. The 1999 constitution was abolished. But the Chavista masses mobilised; their leader was released in forty-eight hours and restored to power on April 15. A “new” Chavez emerged. Nationalist, anti-American – he was convinced that the United States had aided and abetted the coup. He began to rally other dissident political figures in Latin America against American foreign policy. Chavez amended the 1999 Constitution in 2000 to abolish the two-term limit on re-election; the referendum passed with over 54 percent of the vote. In the presidential election of December 2006, which saw a 74 percent turnout, Chavez received 63 percent of the votes cast.

Despite the political rhetoric, a pragmatic reality was clear. Three-quarters of Venezuelan petroleum went to the United States and the country accounted for roughly 12 percent of US oil imports. The “reality” remains in place even as the two countries do not have Ambassadors in their capitals. And after 2002, world oil prices increased sharply in the remaining years of the decade. There was widespread talk of a new wave of corruption among government officials and those in the private sector that befitted from government policies. Some of the revenue went to newly created “missions” that supported social programmes in education and health. Much of the money went into Chavez’s foreign policy adventures. The opposition was able to call for a referendum in 2004 to recall the president. 70 percent of the eligible population turned out to vote and 59 percent voted in favour of Chavez. It was noted that most of his support came from the poor; his original middle class backing had evaporated and defected to the opposition.

But the tide began to turn with the global economic meltdown of 2008-2009, as the price of oil dropped precipitously from $147 per barrel to about $37 a barrel. Chavez’s bombast continued but the political opposition saw an opportunity to reclaim a role in national politics. New leaders emerged. Besides Leopoldo Lopez, Henrique Capriles, Antonio Ledezma and Maria Corina Machado achieved national attention.

In the presidential election of October 7, 2012, Chavez was re-elected for a third six-year term with 54 percent of the vote. He defeated Henrique Capriles who ran a spirited campaign and received more than 45 percent of the national vote. His inauguration was scheduled for January 10, 2013, but he was unable to return to Caracas from Cuba where he was being treated for a recurrence of cancer. When he returned, he died on March 5, 2013 at the age of 58. His death triggered a constitutional requirement that a presidential election be held within 30 days. Maduro narrowly defeated Capriles in the election held on April 14, 2013. Since then, Maduro’s popularity has plummeted as social and economic problems mounted and popular discontent increased sharply.

The December 2015 Assembly elections will be a “litmus test” for Chavismo. Maduro clearly is not Hugo Chavez. He is a mediocre political leader. If the opposition is able to withstand governmental pressure, this may be a turning point in the national political dynamics of Venezuela. If the government succeeds in intimidating the opposition or attempts to steal the election, it is widely expected that there will be widespread protests that will pose a significant threat to the sustainability of the Bolivarian concept put in place in 1999 by Hugo Chavez.

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Diplomatist Magazine was launched in October of 1996 as the signature magazine of L.B. Associates (Pvt) Ltd, a contract publishing house based in Noida, a satellite town of New Delhi, India, the National Capital.

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