On September 26, Venezuela will hold parliamentary elections. Hugo Chávez, whose ruling party and allies hold almost 90 percent of the 167 seats in the National Assembly, is competing against the Mesa de Unidad, a coalition of disparate opposition forces. Under a normal democracy, a defeat for the government would be expected. Private investment and oil production are imploding, GDP has fallen 14 percent since 2008, and inflation runs at 30 percent. And yet, despite this economic mismanagement, the upcoming election may not turn out so badly for the government.
The reason is that Venezuela is not a normal democracy. While elections take place, the government spends most of its time manipulating the law—either breaking it or changing it—with the sole intention of hurting the opposition. The line dividing state and the ruling party spending has been erased: citizens and organizations that are truly loyal to the government get most state jobs, contracts, and subsidies, while overt opponents get nothing. In Venezuela, literally, it does not pay to be in the opposition.
But the government not only breaks the law, it also changes it to its advantage. For this election, a new law was enacted in 2009 that diminished the number of seats that are determined by proportional representation in favor of majorities. What this means is that the ruling party, where it is a majority, has fewer chances of sharing seats with minority parities.
And for those jurisdictions in which the ruling party is a minority, the new law introduced a convenient solution: biased gerrymandering. Districts where the opposition is electorally strong were merged with pro-government districts so as to diminish or eliminate the opposition’s advantage. Evidence of the law’s bias is clear. Gerrymandering was applied to only 9 major federal districts or states: the Capital, Amazonas, Barinas, Carabobo, Lara, Miranda, Zulia and Táchira. Not coincidentally, most of these are areas with large populations, where opposition leaders govern, or where a large proportion of opposition voters live. The result of this new law is predictable: the opposition will win far fewer seats in congress than it would have obtained prior to the law.
The Chávez regime is, if anything, a formidable electoral machine. It has won all except 1 of the 13 elections and referenda since 1999. Defenders claim that the reason for this electoral success is the reduction in poverty. For the 2010 elections, the government will win again, but it will be harder to argue that the reason is improving economic conditions. Public services are in shambles; the country’s crime wave is out of control; unemployment is high, and food shortages continue unabated. The reason for the victory will be this method of governing that legalizes favoritism and changes the rules to the incumbent’s advantage.
While the opposition will certainly obtain fewer seats in parliament than in the popular vote, and consequentely, will fail to end the predominance of the ruling party, there is no question that even this small victory can still be a major victory. The worse mistake made by the opposition, and the reason that it too deserved some blame for the rise of semi-autocracy in Venezuela, was its decision to boycott the 2005 parliamentary elections, giving Chávez total control of the parliament. In semi-autocratic settings, it’s easy to understand this decision to abstain. If voters perceive that the rules of the game are biased, why play the game? But the problem with abstention is that it always favors the other side.
Policy-wise, the elections won’t change much in Venezuela, or in Venezuela’s relations with the United States. The government intends to radicalize further the revolution and has no intention to improve relations with the United States, regardless of what a new parliament may want. Chavez will continue to dominate the Assembly, and if the new Assembly ever causes trouble, he will rely on extra-parliamentary mechanisms to govern its way.
But politically, the election could be a major earthquake. A lot depends on how the opposition reacts to its small victory. If it responds, as in the past, by saying that once again, there was too much effort for nothing; the opposition will succumb to defeatism. If on the other hand the opposition responds by recognizing that the payoff was huge given the odds against it, the political climate of invincibility that has pervaded the government since 2004 will be seriously undermined. Eroding this aura of invincibility is not, in and of itself, a transition to democracy per se. But it could very well be the beginning of serious crack at the top, which is how many transitions to democracy do get started.