With the resounding victory of the "Yes" campaign in Sunday’s referendum on the removal of Venezuelan term limits we are sure to hear reams of repetitive charges of authoritarianism and a growing cult of personality around President Chávez. A closer look at the results however, in comparison with those of the November Regional elections of 2008, reveals the charge of "personalismo", in particular, to be misfounded. Indeed the results suggest the establishment of a durable ideological cleavage which can prove dominant over personalities in Venezuelan electoral contests.
The Guardian has already posed the question "Now that the constitution is no longer a constraint, will elections be enough to defend against despotism in Venezuela?" The removal of term limits is somehow positted as a major slide to authoritarianism while for certain correspondents the meer chanting of "Uh! Ah! Chávez won’t go!" is sufficient proof of a strident cult of personality.
This said, debate in Venezuela is often a debate about one man, the President, Hugo Chávez. This is a product of a number of coinciding forces, the most significant of which has its roots in the experience of Punto Fijo democracy.
From 1958 to 1998 Venezuelans lived in what’s known as a "pacted democracy", in which the two main parties shared power in an agreement consecrated by the oil funded clientelist state. While this agreement outlived the surge in Latin American authoritarian regimes in the 70s it then saw its middle classes gradually slide into poverty with the decline of oil rents. It is into this climate of exclusion and dissatisfaction with established political parties that Chávez emerged, talking of returning power to the people.
With the establishment of the Missions the realisation of greater socio-economic inclusion leapt forward in parallel with advances in citizen participation in the foundation of the 5th Republic via a new constitution, the creation of the community councils, and the recall referendum of 2004. This enfranchising of the marginalized in Venezuela is the main reason for the intense political loyalty held by many Venezuelan leftists to their president.
Chávez’s rhetorical style certainly intensifies this dynamic, "Chávez is the people" he is heard boldly shouting. Likewise his bombastic personality sees him sing, dance and joke in front of huge gatherings in Venezuela, and smell whiffs of sulphur at the UN, further bringing him to the domestic and international centre of debate.
As leftists focus on Chávez so too does the opposition. The visceral fixation held by large sectors of the opposition is tangible in all walks of Venezuelan life. One of my Venezuelan flat mates routinely shouts from her room to mine "Chávez is scum!" while Julio Andre Borges, leader of the foremost opposition party, "Justice first", used his last words in the campaign to attack Chávez, "The President tries to blackmail every Venezuelan by claiming that he is the only guarantee of peace in the country, but the truth is that in these ten years all we’ve heard are insults, threats, and words of war."
Yet though understanding the personalistic loyalty to the President is an important part of understanding the psychology of conflict in Venezuela, Sunday’s results should give pause to those denouncing the "cult of personality".
In a referendum which directly determines to possibility of the continued governance of President Chávez the "Yes" campaign won with 54.4% of the vote in a turnout of around 66%. Were Chávez truly a demagogue, and were there truly a strident personality cult we would expect the results and turnout of such a referendum to differ dramatically to elections not directly concerned with Chávez the man. Yet November’s regional elections saw a turnout of 65%, and as with the referendum the popular vote was won by around 10%. The dramatic similarity of the two results, and their significantly different subjects suggests a common denominator, loyalty or opposition to the government’s project as a whole rather than to the man in particular.
Extending this test of the personalismo hypothesis is complicated by the creation of Venezuela’s largest and most successful party, the PSUV, in 2007, and by the immediate fallout of the oil shutdown of 2002-3 and of the coup attempt of 2002. Yet the limited material provides food for thought, it should make those denouncing Venezuelan personalismo think twice.