The incorrigible President Maduro
Buenos Aires Herald, April 14, 2017
President Nicolás Maduro seems to be doing his utmost to prove his critics right. Ever since April 2013, when he became the democratically elected president of Venezuela, his critics have accused him of mismanaging the economy and lacking democratic credentials. If Venezuela’s dismal economic performance in recent years has shown that Maduro has failed to put the country on the right track, the past two weeks have quelled any lingering doubts over his authoritarian inclinations. After the thwarted attempt to disband the democratically elected and opposition-controlled Congress, the Venezuelan government has strayed even further from democracy by imposing a 15-year ban on the right to run for office of Henrique Capriles, a leading opposition figure and the 2013 opposition presidential candidate.
Democracy is a highly contested concept. Different definitions will place emphasis on different aspects of it — such as elections, separation of power, minority rights, accountability, freedom of the press, and the overall wellbeing of the population. Because democracy is a noun often overburdened with adjectives, many academics have embraced a minimalist definition of it that focuses on competitive elections. Framed as a balance between growing contestation (competition) and inclusion (expansion of suffrage rights), representative democracy is often defined in procedural terms. Though democracies include many other features, competitive elections without significant exclusions of suffrage rights and the right to run for office are central features of the minimalist definition of democracy. Countries may experience governments that fail to govern democratically, but as long as elections continue to be held on a somewhat level playing field and front-rank opposition leaders are allowed to run for office, those countries will still meet the minimal criteria associated with democratic rule.
Since he came into office in 2013 — amid accusations of irregularities in the vote-counting process — Nicolás Maduro has showed little regard for democratic values in the way he has governed. In addition to jailing several opposition leaders on trumped-up charges, he has failed to respect the independence of institutions and has tinkered with the rules to to benefit his personal ambitions and those of his allies. Yet despite overwhelming evidence that he has governed undemocratically, Maduro did fulfill the minimal requirements to retain a claim on democratic credentials when he accepted an electoral defeat in the legislative elections in late 2015. The opposition won 109 seats in the 164-seat unicameral congress. Dubiously enough, the official results gave the opposition a majority just short of the 2/3 majority threshold required to remove Maduro from office; but accepting that electoral defeat at least earned him some political credits.
In 2016, however, Maduro reverted to his authoritarian behaviour. His constant feuds with the legislature and his successful efforts to derail a presidential recall referendum showed his scant regard for the institutions set in place by his predecessor, the late President Hugo Chávez. Maduro outmaneouvered a divided opposition and so slowed the clock for the referendum that, if it were held, it would no longer result in new presidential elections. According to the constitution, if the recall referendum is held after the midpoint in the six year presidential term, a defeat for the president will result in his replacement by the vice-president. That would mean Maduro’s replacement by Tareck El Aissami, a Chávez loyalist whom the US government has accused of corruption and drug trafficking.
In 2017, President Maduro has kept up his undemocratic behaviour. Two weeks ago, the government-controlled Supreme Court ruled that the legislature overstepped its powers and stripped it of legislative powers, assuming them for itself. The public and international outcry — including criticism from within the administration — forced the court to partially retract its decisions. The legislature continues to function and remains under opposition control. But the setback did not stop the government’s efforts to destroy the opposition. Last week, the National Comptroller’s office, in a trumped-up charge, issued the 15-year ban on Henrique Capriles’s holding elected office. Capriles, a prominent opposition leader, narrowly lost the 2012 election against Hugo Chávez, and, amid accusations of vote tampering, lost to Maduro the special election held in 2013 after Chávez’s death. Capriles, a 44-year-old moderate opposition leader, is the current governor of the state of Miranda. Unlike Leopoldo López, another opposition leader who has been jailed by the Maduro regime since 2014 for allegedly calling for an unconstitutional overthrow of the government, Capriles has played by the rules established by the Chávez-Maduro governments. The government’s decision to strip Capriles of his political rights constitutes the clearest violation (though many would say it is only the most recent) of the procedural definition of representative democracy.
The economic hardships that Venezuelans are suffering as a result of the government’s mismanagement of the economy and unfolding political events make it difficult to predict if the government’s most recent move will strengthen or further weaken the administration. But now that Maduro is banning the most competitive opposition leader, and one with impeccable democratic credentials, it becomes impossible not to label Venezuela a dictatorship.