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Chávez victory: good news for democracy?

23 October 2012

Venezuela held presidential elections on Sunday 7 October 2012. These elections were considered particularly momentous because there was an 80 per cent voter turnout and it was the most closely fought presidential contest since President Hugo Chávez came to power in 1998. Below, we have asked Jonathan Glennie and Alina Rocha Menocal, two of ODI’s research fellows who know Latin America well, to tell us whether in their view the election demonstrates that democracy is alive and well in Venezuela.

Jonathan Glennie:

Broadly speaking the answer to that question is yes. There are no perfect democracies, and Venezuela has its own brand of problems, just like its neighbour, Colombia where about a third of legislators are thought to be linked with right-wing paramilitary groups (Acemoglu, Robinson and Santos, 2010), as well as the world’s largest democracies, like the US and India, ranging from high levels of corruption to capture by powerful private interests. Venezuela’s problems include the way President Hugo Chávez has sought to curb the power of his political opponents by imposing restrictions on private media companies and pressuring the judiciary in ways that go beyond the norms of acceptable use of executive power. On the positive side, the popular classes are engaged in the political process like never before – the opposite of the voter apathy so common in many other democracies.

To describe a country as a fairly well-functioning democracy is not to deny the challenges it may face. In 2005, for example, the British Labour Party remained in power with a significant majority of parliamentary seats even though it received only 35% of the votes cast on a 61% turn out, meaning that only 22% of those eligible to vote voted Labour. While this may lead us to criticise British democracy in a range of ways, we would be unlikely to question that, broadly, it is a functioning democracy.

One important step forward in the last few years in Venezuela is that the opposition parties are no longer seeking to remove Chávez from power undemocratically, as in the 2002 coup d’état, but have decided to accept constitutionality and the ballot box. The losing 2012 candidate, Henrique Capriles, who was accused of involvement in the 2002 coup but eventually cleared of all charges, gave a graceful speech accepting that the Venezuelan people had chosen his opponent, Hugo Chávez, and made no attempt to question the validity of that decision.

Alina Rocha Menocal:

Funny that you should mention the 2002 coup attempt, given that back in the 1990s Chávez himself originally tried to gain power by toppling the regime, before opting for the electoral route. So, in a way, all these would-be golpistas seem to have learned that, with the global triumph of democracy, at least in principle, there is no alternative to the ballot box. As you say Jonnie, that Chávez won these elections, and by a substantial and decisive margin, is not contestable. And for the first time since Chávez took office in 1999, the outcome of the election was not entirely pre-determined. The opposition managed to unify around one candidate, which enabled it to mount a credible challenge against the incumbent, and voter turnout was impressive.

Yet, I would not say that the electoral process was entirely free and fair. The playing field was far from levelled. Chávez had the entire machinery of the state he could rely on – he enjoyed considerable advantage based on the patronage sources and networks that he commands, as well as through controls of media outlets and the general climate of fear he propagated. Given how the cards were stacked, what is surprising is that the opposition did as well as it did.

You are absolutely right to point out that even the oldest and most established democratic systems have problems – just look at what is happening in the US with so-called super-PACs [political action committees]. But there are differences in degrees in the quality and health of all these democracies that matter, and we should not lose sight of that. In the almost 15 years that Chávez has been in office, he has done much to centralise power and undermine the autonomy of different institutions intended to promote checks and balances. Today, Venezuela is a much more personalised state than it was 15 years ago (look at what Chávez has done with PDVSA [Petróleos de Venezuela S.A,] turning it from an extremely competent and well-regarded state run company into a personal clientelistic machine), and Venezuelan society is also much more polarised.

Jonathan:

It is one of the problems with discussions about Chávez that it is hard to emerge from a pro versus anti dichotomy, as I have argued here. There isn’t enough space for me to go into all the criticisms I have of the Chávez government, from the failure to curb rising violence, to the politicisation of key institutions and state-owned companies, to his vocal support for horrific regimes abroad. I very much agree with your comment regarding the PDVSA; simple technocratic management appears to have suffered considerably under Chávez. The pressure to conform to the Chávez government’s ideology, and the consequences of not doing so e.g. unemployment, are, according to some accounts, some of the nastier aspects of the present regime, apart from undermining economic efficiency.


So my case is certainly not binary. It is three-fold. First, that Venezuelan democracy is relatively well-functioning. We could take any country in the world and have a detailed debate about what is going well or badly regarding democracy in terms of capable and accountable institutions, and Venezuela is no exception. But the accusation is frequently made that things are exceptionally bad in Venezuela, with some journalists and politicians using the word dictatorship. It is incumbent on balanced analysts to set this record straight – notwithstanding serious criticisms that need to be addressed, democracy is alive and well in Venezuela.

Second, as well as highlighting the important criticisms of Chávez’s management of Venezuelan democracy, a balanced analysis would give sufficient weight to the positive steps that have been taken, particularly the embedding of the constitution as a living document not just a dusty piece of paper, and the engagement of low-income sectors of the populations in political processes as a direct result of government programmes. The evidence for this is copious (although has been challenged) and contrasts strongly with other democracies – yet it is seldom given the coverage it deserves.

And third, criticisms of Chávez’s attempts to assert control over entities that ought to be independent of such control needs to be contextualised to be understood. This is power politics, not theory. The opponents of Chávez have used every means possible to remove him from power, just as élites have in years past across the continent; in the last few years we have seen successful coups in Honduras and Paraguay and unsuccessful coups in Venezuela and possibly Ecuador, not to mention the regular coups of the last century. Chávez’s centralising tendencies are a response to this live threat. The danger, of course, is that a new oligarchy emerges under Chávez; it also appears that the threat is receding somewhat.

So I think the language you use when you talk about the cards being stacked is quite useful, but I would describe the card-game somewhat differently. The élite minority have held all the cards for, literally, centuries, and they are often supported by external actors whose interests may be adversely affected by e.g. nationalisation or land reform programmes. Chávez is rebalancing the card-game.

Alina:

Yes, I agree that there tends to be this polarisation around Chávez, which is not very helpful. I also agree with you Jonnie that at least in principle Chávez has sought to make the political system in Venezuela more open and less elitist. Interestingly, he himself is the product of reforms started in the 1980s and 1990s to decentralise power and authority away from Caracas and traditional political parties, and his ascent through legitimate electoral means would have been unimaginable in the absence of such reforms.

However, I am not sure that his fiery dream of a ‘Bolivarian revolution’ and pro-poor discourse have made that much of a substantive difference in Venezuela. The Chávez regime has certainly helped improve the living conditions of the poor in Venezuela. Yet, with oil prices at an all-time high, that does not seem out of the ordinary – and in fact it repeats patterns in previous economic cycles. Moreover, aside from oil, the economy in Venezuela seems to be stagnating. Taking such things into account, it seems that governments like Brazil have been able to make much more progress in tackling poverty, without relying on the kind of divisive class rhetoric that has become characteristic of Venezuela under Chávez, and without curtailing democratic space. Going back to the cards analogy, Chávez may have well rebalanced the game, but he has also made it clear that he is the one setting the rules of that game, and others can follow – or suffer the consequences. You mentioned that his opponents have used every means to remove him from power, but let’s not forget that he too has resorted to every tool in his arsenal to stay in power and immortalise himself in office.

I would also caution that elections on their own do not make for a healthy democracy, no matter how impressive the turn-out, and trends in other dimensions of democratic governance that we have both mentioned have unequivocally been downward. However, this election may have been a watershed. Chávez himself seems to have been surprised by how much terrain the opposition was able to gain. Perhaps because of this, he pledged he would become ‘a better president’. It is still too early to tell whether Chávez will alter his ruling style and become less combative and more conciliatory. But there are subtle signs that things may be shifting. Chávez certainly won the elections, but Capriles and the youthful energy and momentum he symbolises may well have won Venezuela’s future.

This post features the author's personal view and does not represent the view of ODI.

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