Electoral Competition and Regime Change
By Angel E. Alvarez and Yorelis J. Acosta
Between 1999 and 2005, Venezuelans have been called to cast their ballots ten times. These frequent elections have been the government showcase for democracy. Yet elections have become progressively less competitive, as President Hugo Chávez and his followers have concentrated an unusual amount of power and effectively sidelined the National Assembly. The opposition has also warned of fraud and other forms of electoral bias that favor the government. Nonetheless, with the sole exception of the 2005 legislative elections, most of the opposition parties have run for executive and legislative offices.
In Venezuela, as in other fragile democracies, elections have not been a straightforward electoral game. Indeed, Venezuelan political competition has been a two-level game in which both the government and the opposition have faced crucial political dilemmas. Chávez and his allies have dealt with the tension implicit in allowing electoral contestation that legitimizes the political system on the one hand, and exercising unchallenged authority to stay in power endlessly on the other. For their part, opposition parties have inefficiently attempted to coordinate undemocratic strategies to resist Chávez’s revolution, while simultaneously running separately in executive and legislative elections. The incipient 2006 presidential campaign reveals this tension between electoral competition and regime change.
In fragile democracies, competitive elections are not the only game in town. Political stability is at stake, and elections may either liberalize or reinforce authoritarian tendencies. Regime uncertainty strongly shapes politicians’ behavior, leading them to play an electoral game for offices and a political struggle for regime change. In this type of game is very difficult for the opposition to cooperate at both levels.
During the so-called Fifth Republic, Venezuelan democracy has become appreciably unstable and fragile. In the course of seven years, Venezuelans have endured a long-lasting process of extreme polarization, a controversial constitutional reform, the dissolution of Congress, two general strikes, a failed coup d’état led by conservative businessmen and generals, many massive demonstrations, violent upheavals, the dismissal of about 18,000 workers from the state-owned oil company (PDVSA), and dozens of politically related deaths. President Chávez has consolidated power, yet still alleges that the opposition, along with the U.S. government, plots either a new coup or his assassination, whereas the opposition insists that Chávez’s final aim is to impose an authoritarian socialist regime. Thus, political instability and polarization are far from over.
The exact nature of the chavista regime is yet to be defined. The 1999 constitution makes clear that the Venezuelan regime is not a representative democracy, but a radical participatory regime. The main features of the Bolivarian revolution include frequent and massive electoral mobilization; permanent political mobilization against alleged anti-revolutionary forces, both domestic and foreign; restrictions of free speech; redistribution of rural and urban land property; and constraints on economic freedom.
Chávez has implemented a broad gamut of social programs, and has proclaimed that his ultimate goal is to re-invent socialism. He attempts to build a network of public-private partnership industries and farmer cooperatives not determined by profits but oriented to solidarity. The so-called “nuclei of endogenous development” are the seeds of this allegedly new economic model. As part of this process, the Chávez government is implementing a radical agrarian reform, has promoted the distribution of urban land (including illegal takeovers of private buildings), and has declared that in Venezuela private property is no longer “sacred.” Paradoxically, however, the private sector has grown following the critical years of 2001-2003. Thus far, Chávez’s “21st century socialism” seems to be a sort of radical populism. He has certainly concentrated power, regulated the economy and restricted civic rights. Nevertheless, Venezuela remains far from exhibiting a Cuban-style authoritarian socialism.
The Bolivarian revolution has based its legitimacy on successive electoral victories. On average, Chávez and his followers have run for and won more than one election per year. Each of the elections where Venezuelans have cast their ballots since 1999 has been eventually presented as a revolutionary victory by Chávez and his backers.
Nonetheless, opposition leaders and social organizations (labor unions, business federations, domestic and international NGOs and human rights groups) have claimed that Chávez’s revolution is a threat to democracy. The opposition distrusts political institutions—particularly, the National Electoral Council (CNE), the Supreme Court, and the General Prosecutor’s Office (Fiscalía), and has complained of persecution and discrimination, demanded political liberalization, rule of law, and electoral transparency. Despite their many grievances, opposition candidates have run for all offices between 1999 and 2004, and apparently will run for president in December 2006.
The opposition boycotted the 2005 National Assembly election. This last-minute decision resulted from the combination of electoral calculations and regime strategies. Opposition leaders claimed that the government was prepared to commit fraud. According to their arguments, the electoral authorities were able to trace votes electronically, and the government was employing an electronic database to intimidate and to blackmail potential opponents – the so-called Maisanta List. This database combines public information from the electoral register and the list of people who requested the referendum to revoke President Chavez’s mandate. The Maisanta List includes personal information on political preferences, previous voting behavior, identity numbers, addresses, and assigned polling stations. This list could probably have been used to distort voting decisions. Nonetheless, pre-election surveys predicted voters’ unwillingness to support opposition parties. According to Alfredo Keller and Assoc., the majority party (the Fifth Republic Movement, MVR) was preferred by 55 percent of most likely voters, whereas the sum of the all opposition parties (AD, COPEI, PV, MPJ, ABP, UNT, and LCR) was just 14 percent. The same firm estimated a turnout at 30 percent or less.
Nonetheless, the electoral boycott made explicit some dramatic implications of the current political game. As a result of the 2005 legislative election, the MVR and some of its allies (PPT, PODEMOS, and PCV) gained 100 percent of congressional seats, wiping out opposition presence in Congress, which was about 45 percent of the seats in the former legislature. Therefore, opposition leaders now have no access to crucial political information, no influence in the policy-making process, and no parliamentary immunity for at least five years. They now constitute a less effective opposition, and can be much more easily prosecuted and imprisoned for their political declarations and actions. However, the opposition boycott revealed many flaws in the electoral system, also detected by international observers. In a nutshell, in December 2005 the government won all the seats, but lost some legitimacy, while the opposition lost all its power, but cast some shadows on the transparency of the Venezuelan electoral system.
Chávez’s government has used and will continue using competitive elections to legitimate his increasing concentration of power. Opposition parties have attempted to coordinate to avoid the consolidation of the chavista regime, using both democratic methods and violent strategies (general strikes, military rebellion, and riots). Yet they have been divided and will remain separated by ideological gaps and pragmatic conflicts for offices and leadership, and will probably keep failing to build successful electoral coalitions, since each party has sought to maximize its own vote share. President Chávez has been extremely successful in the electoral game, strengthening his government while the opposition gradually vanishes. Paradoxically, Chávez still needs the opposition to maintain domestic and international legitimacy. Hence the government dilemma has been and still is how to concentrate power to change the economic system and the political regime, without preventing the opposition from participating in elections.
THE 2006 PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION: CHALLENGES AND DILEMMAS
President Chávez has never concealed his electoral ambitions. Indeed, in his Aló Presidente! (his weekly live TV show) on February 19, 2006, the president voiced his willingness to remain in power indefinitely. The constitution allows him to run for president only for a second term, but his followers in the National Assembly have claimed that they are ready for a new constitutional reform.
Currently, Chávez has no serious challengers. In the ruling coalition, he is an uncontested leader. Vice-President José Vicente Rangel and many other party leaders say that Chávez is the only necessary leader of the Bolivarian “process.” Moreover, Chávez is currently the most popular candidate in Venezuela. According to Keller, Chávez is supported by 55 percent of the voters, whereas the most popular of his opponents (Julio Borges, of the MPJ) is backed by 10 percent of the citizens. Thus Chávez will probably win with no effort. However, Chávez not only needs to win the elections, he requires massive support. His proclaimed goal is to gain 10 million votes out of a total 14 million potential voters. Thus his most important enemy is not the opposition, but abstention. The 2005 parliamentary elections demonstrated that his immense and expensive political apparatus (the so-called UBE, Units of Electoral Battle) does not necessarily guarantee a massive turnout.
However, previous elections have taught him to take advantage of inflammatory and polarizing rhetoric. Since 1998, Venezuelan turnout has responded to higher competitiveness and polarization. Thus Chávez will desperately need a challenger if he wants to use the 2006 elections as a showcase for the legitimacy and strength of the Bolivarian revolution. Yet opposition leaders and traditional parties are no longer a credible threat to Chávez’s revolution.
The opposition leadership is weak and volatile. At least seven challengers are running for president. Some of them might give up very soon, but probably some others will emerge. Opposition candidates are ideologically diverse. One of them, Teodoro Petkoff, is from the center-left. He is an economist and newspaper editor who was a guerrilla leader in the 1960s, a former leader of a socialist party, and the former Minister of Planning during the macroeconomic adjustment of 1996-97. Another candidate, William Ojeda, is from a more radical and former chavista left-wing party (Un Solo Pueblo). The most right-wing candidate, Roberto Smith, is a technocratic mathematician who was a member of the economic team that implemented a “shock-therapy” program during the second administration of Carlos Andrés Pérez (1989-93). Petkoff and Ojeda have strongly criticized corruption, inefficiency, and populism in Chávez’s administration, but both of them have remarked on the relevance of Chávez’s social reforms. They also have supported the current ultra-nationalist foreign policy. On the other hand, Smith has emphasized the virtues of orthodox economic policies. Two additional candidates, Julio Borges, a lawyer and leader of the Movimiento Primero Justicia (MPJ) who is also the only candidate supported by a national opposition party, and Manuel Rosales, a governor and the main leader of a personalistic regional party (Nuevo Tiempo), have said almost nothing about economics and social programs. However, Rosales explicitly supported the 2002 coup d’état, Borges and Ojeda participated in demonstrations and popular upheavals in 2002 and 2003, whereas Petkoff and his newspaper (Tal Cual) condemned the coup, claimed for moderation, and proposed democratic ways out of the crisis.
Most of these candidates have declared that the opposition should have only one candidate, but they have still not found a way to choose one. Some have proposed a primary election; others prefer a national public opinion poll. Nonetheless, parties lack mechanisms for the coordination and enforcement of collective decisions. Thus the more likely scenario is that despite their efforts, opposition leaders will run separately for the presidency. Added to the December 2005 experience, this could mean that they could eventually boycott the presidential election in a second attempt to expose the alleged undemocratic nature of the chavista regime. The National Assembly is about to elect new electoral authorities, but there is no reason to think that a single-party legislature will elect a more independent and trustworthy electoral council than the previous multi-party Congress. Additionally, if the public opinion trends persist, opposition candidates would be inexorably defeated. Thus once again they may have incentives to boycott the election.
In this scenario, Chávez will probably emphasize his already strong position on foreign policy issues and will make use of an even more radical “anti-imperialist” rhetoric. Lacking a strong domestic menace, Chávez will probably need to fight against a powerful enemy. If he does not find a real threat, he seems to be able to fabricate one.
Venezuelan National Elections: Dates and Outcomes, 1998-2005
|TYPE OF ELECTION||DATE||OUTCOME||TURNOUT|
|Presidential Election||December 6, 1998||H. Chávez, 62%
H. Salas R., 31%
|Constitution Amendment Referendum||April 25, 1999||Yes 87.8%
|National Constitutional Referendum||July 25, 1999||MVR 103 members
Opposition, 7 members
|Approval Referendum of the 1999 Constitution||December 15, 1999||Yes, 71.8%
|Labor Unions Referendum||December 3, 2000||Yes, 62%
|Presidential Election||July 30, 2000||H. Chávez, 59.8%
F. Arias C., 37.5%
|National Assembly||July 30, 2000||MVR, 44.4%
|Municipal Elections||December 3, 2000||MVR, 35.5% (834 concejales)
AD, 21.4% (503 concejales)
|Presidential Recall Election||August 15, 2004||Yes, 40.7% (a)
|National Assembly||December 4, 2005||MVR and allies, 100%||24.9%|
Note: CTV, Confedaración de Trabajadores de Venezuela (Confederation of Venezuelan Workers); MVR, Movimiento V República (chavista coalition).
Source: Consejo Nacional Electoral (National Electoral Council)
The recall referendum was certified as free and fair by international observers from the OAS and the Carter Center, but major opposition parties have refused to accept the results.
Angel E. Alvarez is a professor of political science at the Universidad Central de Venezuela and an independent political advisor. He is the author of several books and articles on Venezuelan parties and elections.
Yorelis J. Acosta is a professor of social theory at the Universidad Central de Venezuela. She also writes for Venezuelan newspapers as a political analyst and columnist.