Venezuela Votes against Chavez

The Venezuelan opposition has won an important victory—for now. In Sunday’s parliamentary elections it managed to receive 52 percent of the popular vote, which translates into some 60 out of 165 seats in the legislature, thus depriving Chavez of the two-thirds majority he needs to pass some laws and make some major decisions such as naming Supreme Court justices.

The victory shows that a majority of Venezuelans are tired of the regime’s autocratic ways and its results; it has emboldened the up-until-now ineffective and disorganized opposition; and it undermines the legitimacy that Chavez has claimed to have in speaking for the people (it will be difficult for him to continue to dismiss serious criticisms of his government as the concerns of a small oligarchy).

So life may be a bit more difficult for Chavez in the future, but it would be naïve to think that Chavez will suddenly begin respecting democratic institutions and let the election results stand in the way of his socialist revolution. He’s used every dirty trick in the book to subvert and silence his opponents—technical disqualification of candidates, gerrymandering, intimidation, de-funding local governments led by the opposition, exiling or jailing critics on false charges, shutting down media outlets, etc.—and to gain autocratic control of every major institution in the country.

Chavez will surely try to circumvent the legislature if it suits him. He has set up parallel government structures that he controls, and has spoken of creating local “communes” throughout the country whose decisions would override those of the parliament. Chavez controls virtually all government spending in an opaque process that imposes no accountability. It will be a challenging task for a new parliament to make spending transparent and accountable. The lame duck congress that lasts for the next three months (and that Chavez fully controls) can still pass a law empowering Chavez to rule by decree for any period of time that it chooses. So Chavez still has the ability to get his way.

In the end, politics matter, but the factor that will determine whether Chavez will be able to hold on to power may very well be economics. The economy is the worst performing in Latin America, inflation is about 30 percent, the country suffers power outages and water shortages, there is a scarcity of basic foods and other goods, infrastructure is crumbling and the dramatic rise in crime has made Venezuela one of the most criminally violent places in the world. It is no surprise then that most Venezuelans are fed up with Chavez. The rise in discontent, including among his base, threatens Chavez’s hold on power. Thus, the autocrat’s need to move fast in consolidating his revolution a la Cuba, at which point popular discontent matters little. Venezuela is still very much in a race between a deteriorating domestic economy and the completion of Chavez’s totalitarian project.