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All power to chavismo; Venezuela's parliamentary election

From The Economist

December 10, 2005 | U.S. Edition | Edging towards a Potemkin democracy | Caracas. EVER since he was first elected in 1998, Hugo Chávez, Venezuela's leftist president, has preached the virtues of "participatory" over merely representative democracy. "All power to the people" has become a favourite government slogan. But in an election for the National Assembly on December 4th, the masses chose not to participate. And because of a last-minute boycott of the election by most opposition parties, in protest at the government's control of the National Electoral Council (CNE), many Venezuelans will not be represented.

The opposition's boycott means that the new assembly will be composed wholly of supporters of Mr Chávez, albeit split among several parties. But the election was hardly an unmitigated triumph for the government. Only 25% of the electorate took part, admitted the CNE. The opposition says the real figure was under 20%. The CNE extended voting hours in some areas, as the government made frantic efforts to get out the vote.

The National Assembly was the only remaining government institution in which the opposition had any influence (it held 79 of the 165 seats before the election). The judiciary, the armed forces, the audit office—even the ombudsman—are controlled by Mr Chávez's supporters. Their clean sweep in the assembly removes the last remaining check on the president. All this gives Mr Chávez the power to change the constitution at will.

The opposition looks rash to have yielded its place in the assembly by default. Officials complain that the opposition has spent years trying to overthrow the president—by a coup and a general strike—rather than oppose him by political means. Certainly, the opposition lacks the leadership, strategy and programme to pose an effective alternative to Mr Chávez.

But its decision to pull out of the poll was driven by its voters, who were intent on staying at home anyway. "Broad sectors of Venezuelan society have no confidence in the electoral process, nor in the independence of the electoral authority," said election observers from the European Union. They called on the assembly to appoint a new CNE "composed of professionals with prestige and independence".

So what now? Alí Rodríguez, the foreign minister, invited the opposition to a dialogue. But the minister, a former guerrilla who took part in a 1992 coup plot by Mr Chávez, said they must remember that in a democracy "decisions are taken by the majority, not the minority". Officials point out that turnouts have been low in parliamentary elections in Venezuela for two decades. Even so, the government can hardly claim a mandate for intensifying Mr Chávez's socialist revolution.

The assembly vote was a dress rehearsal for a presidential contest in a year's time, in which Mr Chávez will seek a further six-year term. Absent a new and impartial electoral authority, the opposition's supporters may conclude that the electoral road to power is closed to them. Some of the opposition parties may disappear in any event. Mr Chávez says that they will be illegal unless they re-register.

With the legislature reduced to a rubber stamp, the risk is that political conflict will move to the streets. The government has changed the penal code to restrict demonstrations. Hitherto, most Latin American and European governments have distanced themselves from the strident denunciations of Mr Chávez emanating from Washington DC, on the ground that he has twice been elected.

Venezuela remains a surprisingly open society. Polls show strong support for democracy. But the essence of democracy, as Joseph Schumpeter wrote more than 60 years ago, is an "institutional arrangement for arriving at political decisions in which individuals acquire the power to decide by means of a competitive struggle for the people's vote." Unless Mr Chávez accepts that next year's contest must be impartially conducted, outsiders may conclude that Venezuela is no longer a democracy in any meaningful sense of the word.

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