The good news for Venezuela's socialist and pro-Chavez forces is that while the results of the September 26, 2010 National Assembly election might seem disappointing—because Chavez's party only won about 50 percent of the popular vote—they are actually quite impressive. During the last 12 years in government, there were 2 particularly bad years in which the economy shrank, there were numerous blackouts due to a severe drought and a lack of hydroelectric power, crime seemed to reach new heights, and government mismanagement caused thousands of tons of food to rot. Nonetheless, the results represent a new opportunity for the governing socialists to learn from past errors and to move forward in their program to construct 21st century socialism.
On a district-by-district basis, Venezuela's governing party, the PSUV (United Socialist Party of Venezuela), won 98 seats in the National Assembly (AN) to the 65 seats for the opposition coalition MUD (Table of Democratic Unity) and two for the independent party (PPT). The opposition thus achieved its goal of preventing a two-thirds majority for the PSUV. Thus, given their near complete absence in the previous AN, this represents a comeback for the once moribund right-wing position.
Why "only" 49 percent of the vote, but 59 percent of the legislators? Chavez's critics now argue that the PSUV's new 59 percent majority in the National Assembly, which is 9 points higher than its popular vote, is proof of an unfair electoral system. In particular, they point to a new electoral suffrage law that was passed in 2009, which weakened the previously existing proportional representation system. The change is a bit complicated, but given that this has become a major issue in the international media, it is worth explaining.
Proportional And Direct Voting History
First of all, Venezuela has a mixed voting system, which gives 30 percent (or 52 out of 165 seats) in the National Assembly to statewide proportional party representation and the other 113 seats to directly-elected electoral district representatives. Voters thus have two types of votes, one for a state party list of candidates and another for one to three individual electoral district representatives. (The number of district representatives depends on the size of the district.) For the 2000 and 2005 national assembly elections, the electoral law stipulated that the statewide party list vote (Venezuela has 26 federal states) should be considered in conjunction with the direct candidate votes, so that if a party wins a direct representative in that state, it would receive one less representative via the party list. This system, which is modeled on Germany's, guarantees that small parties can be represented in the legislature even if they don't win any directly-elected district representatives—as long as they get over a certain percentage of the statewide party list vote.
However, in 2000, an opposition governor of Yaracuy state discovered that if you set up two different parties that are in alliance and have one of the parties run only on the direct vote part of the ballot and the other only on the proportional vote of the ballot, then this alliance can significantly increase its number of representatives. In effect, a way was found to game the system that favors a dominant party or alliance. In 2005, Chavez's then-governing party, the MVR, picked up this trick and created a new allied party, the UVE, which ran only on the proportional part of the ballot, while the MVR ran only on the direct part. Subsequently, the Supreme Court denied a constitutional challenge to the practice, saying that since the Constitution does not specify the method for proportional representation, parties cannot be prohibited from forming this type of alliance. In the end, the opposition boycotted the 2005 National Assembly election and the issue became moot, since Chavez's supporters won 100 percent of the National Assembly representatives.
In 2009, the National Assembly passed a new electoral suffrage law, which eliminated the provision that had caused direct representatives to count against the proportional representatives a party could have won. As a result, the direct vote and the proportional vote would be counted separately and the winning candidates adjudicated separately. This made the trick of running two allied parties unnecessary. Also, the new law lowered the number of proportional representatives from 40 percent of the National Assembly to 30 percent. As a result, proportional representation in the National Assembly was reduced significantly and now mainly guarantees that an opposition party that does not win candidates via the direct representative vote may at least win a few proportional representatives.
In the case of the September 26 vote, if it were not for the proportional part of the ballot, the opposition would have won 33 percent of the Assembly, instead of 39 percent. However, if the old electoral suffrage law had been in effect, the opposition would have won 45 percent of the seats, 6 percentage points or 10 seats more. As this would not have changed the PSUV's absolute majority in the Assembly, this would not have made a significant difference.
Perhaps more importantly, though, is the implication that Venezuela's electoral system is somehow "rigged" against the opposition. The fact is, Venezuela's legislature (even before the 1999 constitution) has always slightly over-represented rural areas so as to ensure that they would not be completely dominated by more populous urban interests. It just so happens that Chavez is far more popular in rural electoral districts than in urban ones. It is perfectly legitimate to debate whether such an overrepresentation is wrong, but one must keep in mind that this is not an invention of the Chavez government.
Also, it is quite possible that if Party A has many voters in a few districts and Party B has its voters more evenly divided throughout the country, but always outnumbering its rival party, then B will end up winning far more districts than A, even though their national level of support is more or less the same. For example, this is what happens quite often in Britain where the Labor Party won 55 percent of the seats in 2005 with only 37 percent of the vote. In such a system it is even theoretically possible to have a minority of the popular vote and still win a majority of the seats.
As for the accusation that electoral districts have been changed to give the PSUV more votes, even opposition supporters argue that these changes have been minimal. Certainly they have not come even close to the gerrymandering seen in some congressional districts in the U.S.
Unfair Media Advantage?
Another common accusation against the Chavez government has been that it has an unfair media advantage because the government controls more and more media outlets. Indeed, many new state-run or state-funded media outlets have been created in the past few years, such as Telesur, National Assembly TV (ANTV), Avila TV, Vive, and Tves. However, even combined, their audience share does not come close to that of the private TV stations. For example, in the battle for news and politics viewers, the private, hard-line, opposition-oriented Globovision usually reaches twice the audience share as the state-run VTV during prime time.
It should thus come as no surprise that in a year in which the government was facing multiple crises (economic, electric, crime, and mismanagement of state food distribution), the oppositional media would be able to run with these issues and make important inroads. Polls in early 2010 showed Chavez's popularity dropping from a high of nearly 70 percent in May 2008 to just under 50 percent in early 2010. However, as the economy gradually recovered in mid-2010, Chavez's popularity recovered too. Another reason for this increase in popularity was that Chavez went into full campaign mode and started inaugurating new industrial centers, health centers, and new social programs—such as a new credit card called, "Buen Vivir" or Good Living.
The Power Of The National Assembly
The reason that Chavez made such an all-out effort is that Venezuela's National Assembly is more important and powerful than most people realize, since most see in Venezuela a very presidentialist political system. However, the fact is that Venezuela's National Assembly is arguably more powerful than the U.S. Congress. Not only does the Venezuelan president not have the right to veto legislation, but the AN appoints all members to three of the other four branches of government—the Supreme Court, the Citizen's Branch (including the Attorney General, the Comptroller General, and the Human Rights Ombudsperson), and the National Electoral Council. Also, the AN has the power to dismiss ministers and the vice president.
To complicate matters further, many laws (laws that set the framework for state institutions and for other laws, so-called "organic" laws) require a two-thirds majority, including many of the appointments to the other branches of government. This means that losing a two-thirds majority in the AN will cause a serious problem for the Chavez government. The more likely result, though, will be paralysis in such cases, which is what happened frequently during the 2000-2005 legislative period when opposition and Chavista forces were nearly evenly matched in the AN.
The September 26 election cements the comeback of the opposition. Following a failed coup (2002), an oil industry shutdown (2003), and the boycott of the last AN elections (2005), the opposition is gradually reintegrating itself into Venezuelan political life, with its participation in the 2006 presidential election, in the 2008 regional election, and in this AN election. Also, with the formation of a new alliance (the MUD), the opposition appears to be more united than in the past. However, it still has to overcome some key obstacles if it is to become more effective in combating Chavez. For one, it would have to abstain from accepting money from foreign sources. According to a recent report, opposition-affiliated groups have received tens of millions of dollars in the past year.
Second, the opposition would have to become more democratic by holding primary elections for its candidates, as well as elections for its party leaders. For the recent AN election, the opposition held primaries in only 18 percent of the electoral districts, while the PSUV held primaries in all electoral districts.
Castro-Communism Versus Fascist Capitalism?
As long as the Bolivarian Revolution is beginning to show signs of wearing out, such as in poorly executed social programs and difficulties in overcoming key problems of the past year (particularly the economic crisis and crime), the opposition will have it easier. Still, in Venezuela's barrios and in the countryside, people continue to feel loyal to their "Commandante" Chavez. The land reform, the communal councils that give citizens more power in their communities, and the many social programs are highly valued in these sectors. Although many are frustrated that day-to-day problems remain unresolved, by and large they do not turn to the opposition, which still largely consists of the country's old elite. They do not believe the opposition when it claims that Chavez is taking the country towards "Castro-Communism." On the other hand, it is doubtful that they believe Chavez's warning that the opposition represents capitalist fascism.
According to opinion surveys, a little over a third of the population consists of die-hard Chavez supporters and a little under a third consists of die-hard Chavez opponents, and a third tends to be undecided and often considered to consist of "ni-nis" (neither with Chavez nor against Chavez).
One party has now tried to capitalize on this segment of the population by rejecting both Chavez and the opposition. This party, the PPT (Fatherland for All), which for a long time supported Chavez, split from the pro-Chavez coalition earlier this year and attempted, with the help of the popular governor of Lara state, Henri Falcón, to constitute a third force in the country. In a surprise to many analysts, this effort appears to have ended in failure, since the PPT picked up only two AN representatives and none in Lara. Apparently the PPT took votes mostly from the opposition, which would suggest that voter loyalty to Chavez is stronger than to the opposition.
Despite the relatively equal vote count for the two remaining sides, the opposition is claiming that this is the beginning of the end of Chavez. This would seem plausible if one considers that Chavez enjoyed a high point of popularity in 2006, shortly after his reelection with 63 percent of the vote. On the other hand, Chavez has been declared politically dead before only to reemerge stronger—such as 2002-2003 after the coup attempt and the oil industry shutdown. Much can still happen before the next presidential election in 2012, for which Chavez has already announced his candidacy.
Chavez's main program for the time until the next election is to continue the effort to establish "21st century socialism" in Venezuela. Exactly what this means is still not entirely clear, but there are a few indications. Towards the top of the agenda is a new labor law, which could democratize not only state-owned enterprises, but private enterprises, too, via workers' councils. Also, the role of communal councils is to be strengthened, particularly on the citywide and perhaps even statewide and national levels. With regard to the economy, the government intends to expand its industrial planning effort and to support strategic private industries so that the country becomes less dependent on oil export earnings.
These efforts, however, will be complicated due to the PSUV's loss of its two-thirds majority in the AN. The real danger, though, is that Chavez and his supporters will interpret their 59 percent AN majority as an undisputed triumph and that they will forget, as a result, that barely 50 percent of Venezuelans voted for the PSUV.
Many, both in the opposition and in the more moderate wing of the PSUV, are trying to convince Chavez that the reason for the narrow loss is due to his too radical approach and that he needs to "slow down." There is little indication, though, that this is the reason Chavez's popularity has suffered in the past year. Rather, the reasons are to be found with basic problems, such as unemployment, insecurity, and poor government services. This is what most surveys and casual conversations in the barrios indicate. Also, given that most Venezuelans (especially the poor) have so far reacted positively to Chavez's larger program of deepening the democratization of the economy, of the media, and of the polity, there is every reason to believe that they will continue to support him if he follows this program. If Chavez and his supporters decisively address the basic issues, as well as the strategic programmatic ones, then Chavez has an excellent chance of being reelected in 2012 and thereby reversing the opposition's recent comeback.
Greg Wilpert is a freelance writer and editor of Venezuelanalysis.com. He is also the author of the book, Changing Venezuela By Taking Power: The Policies of the Chavez Presidency.