Saving Democracy in Venezuela

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, December 16, 2014

 

It is undeniable that Venezuela is going through a deep economic and political crisis. Yet things could significantly worsen, unless the government and opposition agree on finding a way out of the crisis through institutional and democratic channels.

 

The government must guarantee a level playing-field and a free and fair process for the opposition to participate in the upcoming 2015 legislative elections — and the opposition must demonstrate an unwavering commitment to democratic principles and a loud, clear rejection of any attempt to overthrow the Nicolás Maduro administration.

 

Democracy in Venezuela is in trouble. After having risen to power due to worsening economic conditions and weakened democratic institutions, President Hugo Chávez failed to restore institutions and build a system of checks and balances that would strengthen democratic rule and promote social and economic inclusion.

 

Since his death in 2013, the situation has worsened. The death of the charismatic president has deepened the political vacuum caused by the absence of independent and autonomous institutions that can protect democratic rule. President Maduro, after winning a disputed election, has unsuccessfully attempted to concentrate the power that the gifted Chávez exercised.

 

The opposition too has not lived up to the democratic challenge either. It is divided, with those who want to restore proper democratic rule through institutional means and those who want to force Maduro out. With opposition leaders calling for popular disobedience and coming just short of calling for the overthrow of Maduro, the president has been handed the excuse he needs to crack down on the opposition.

 

Using formal legal arguments — and illustrating what little independence judicial power has — Maduro has put in jail some prominent opposition leaders. Because he has targeted the most vocal leaders committed to overthrowing him, Maduro has successfully divided the opposition into moderates, who want to restore full democratic order through the nation's institutions, and radicals, who support a forceful overthrow of the government. As many of the most radical opposition leaders were involved in the 2002 coup against Chávez, Maduro has built a strong case, calling into question their democratic credentials. But the fact that the president has focused on questioning the democratic credentials of these leaders has not erased questions about the democratic practices of his government.

 

Democracy though, is still alive in Venezuela. Elections for the 165 seats in the unicameral legislature are scheduled to take place in late 2015. When legislative elections were last held in 2010, Chávez's Unified Socialist Party (PSUV) just barely defeated the opposition Democratic Unity Round table (MUD) by a one-percent margin (48.2 percent to 47.2 percent). But because the Chávez administration tampered with the electoral rules, the government won a commanding majority of 96 seats in the Assembly.

 

For 2015, the opposition should set its goal on getting more votes than the government. Regardless of how this affects the assignment of seats in the Assembly, an electoral victory for the opposition would be a monumental blow to the government. Maduro would find it difficult to recover from such a devastating electoral result.

 

The Venezuelan Constitution also allows recall referenda on elected politicians. Maduro could potentially even be subjected to a recall referendum in 2016. An electoral defeat in 2015 — even if it does not translate into a commanding majority of seats in the Assembly — would be sufficient and would render Maduro helpless for the rest of his term. If the opposition bets everything on winning in 2015, it would demonstrate its unwavering commitment to democracy and prove to the Venezuelan people that it is prepared to lead a democratic change in power in Venezuela after 16 years of Chávez-Maduro Socialist rule.

 

For the government, guaranteeing the opposition a free and fair electoral process is a concession that it cannot afford to deny. The difficult economic situation — with falling oil prices, skyrocketing inflation and an out-of-control exchange rate — threatens the survival of the Maduro administration. Though the opposition does not have the power to topple the government, the economic crisis might end up producing a revolt within the government that could force Maduro out of power.

 

The president needs to win himself some time, to see if the reforms he has announced can get the economy back on its feet. Though chances of this are slim, the alternative is that economic turmoil could trigger a social and political crisis that forces him out of power. In guaranteeing the opposition a level playing-field for the 2015 legislative elections, Maduro might end up paving the way to his own electoral defeat. Yet by failing to offer the opposition a democratic way out to defeat him, Maduro will only worsen the current crisis and will put his own survival at risk.

 

If President Maduro and the opposition agree to let Venezuelans decide the country's future, in the 2015 legislative elections, Maduro will win time to try out more reforms, the government and the opposition will validate its democratic credentials and, most importantly, Venezuelan democracy will be saved.