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Elections in Venezuela

By Daniel Hellinger, Webster University, St. Louis

The elections in Venezuela bring a mixture of good and bad news for the development of “protagonistic democracy,” as President Hugo Chávez call the new system instituted by the Bolivarian Constitution of 1999.

On the one hand, the elections were conducted in a transparent way and reaffirm the legitimacy of the government. The low turnout must be put in the context and in no way reflects a rejection of the Bolivarian Revolution. However, President Chávez himself has set a higher standard for democracy than merely ensuring that elections are transparent.

Preliminary results suggest that the president’s own party, the MVR (Fifth Republic Movement) has won 114 (68 percent) of 167 seats in the National Assembly. In addition, allied parties have probably won most of the remainder of the seats. Together, pro-Chavez parties won nearly 9 of every 10 votes cast (based on votes for the Latin American parliament). The pro-Chávez coalition will have well in excess of the 70 percent of seats needed to pass amendments to the Constitution, control judicial appointments, and otherwise dominate the Assembly.

No one should lament the collapse of AD and COPEI, the old parties that once dominated the system. Their withdrawal from the election at the last minute, despite concessions to its demands from the National Electoral Council, rightly drew condemnation from the Organization of American States. Venezuela’s media system remains open, with the largest media outlets remaining aligned with, vitriolic, partisan criticism of the government. Opposition charges that the government skewed the outcome by using public money in the campaign. Those claims should be investigated, but let no one believe that the opposition lacked abundant resources to wage its own campaign.

The decision of the Primer Justicia party to withdraw carries more serious implications. Unlike AD and COPEI, PJ is a relative new-comer with a leader, Julio Borges, who recognizes that the old system failed. His appeal would certainly be limited more to the middle class, but his party could have decided to have played a role as a loyal opposition. Borges has seriously injured his own credibility by withdrawing his party from the Assembly elections.

While the harm done to PJ may be its own fault, it is not a salutary development for democracy – representative or protagonistic. Of the Venezuelans who voted in August 2004, 30 percent voted to recall President Chávez. The Bolivarian ideal is to establish an “inclusionary” system. If any large group of Venezuelans feels excluded from the political process, even if the fault lies less with Chávez and more with opposition parties, that is a problem for democracy.

The low turnout rate of 25 percent is another cause for concern. Government officials are trying to make the best of it by pointing out that the rate was held down by 10 percent turnout in many opposition strongholds. Rains and a sense of complacency about the outcome probably also reduced the turnout. Jesse Chacón, Minister of the Interior, points out that pro-Chávez parties apparently got the votes of approximately 22 percent of the electorate (3 million out of 14 million registered voters), more than the winners received in the last congressional election under the old system, and more than the chavistas got in the 2000 Assembly election.

These arguments make sense as answers to those wishing to discredit these elections. However, it is troubling that for the third consecutive election since the referendum of 2004, turnout is so low. Protagonistic democracy is not supposed to replace but to transcend the limits of representative democracy and foster development of a participatory civil society. A populace that is actively involved in shaping the decisions that affect their lives would presumably want to ensure that representatives in the Assembly are accountable to them and regard voting as a civic duty.

We now move on to a new era, when the character of the pro-government Assembly will be tested. Will Bolivarian representatives rush to change a Constitution that is only six years old? Will they consult with social movements about key public appointments? Will they exercise oversight and target the corruption that remains too much a part of public administration? Will they debate policies?

Some small ideological tendencies aligned with chavismo have celebrated the low turnout rate as evidence that participatory democracy is about to replace a moribund representative system. I disagree with viewing the two alternatives as mutually exclusive. They should mutually reinforce one another. The friends of Venezuela should not only defend the legitimacy of the elected Assembly, but should also recognize the Revolution has not yet successfully institutionalized the “protagonistic” character of Bolivarian democracy.


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