Is there a democracy to be saved in Venezuela?

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, May 2, 2017


Though recent political developments in Venezuela have confirmed the long decline in that country’s democratic trajectory, President Nicolás Maduro’s decision to convene a constitutional assembly confirms suspicions that the regime is descending into dictatorship. In addition to justifying his decision by suggesting that it was made in consultation with the military, Maduro’s move to replace the 1999 Constitution promulgated under his predecessor, Hugo Chávez, concurrently represents an act of desperation and a clear signal that his government no longer denies the deep crisis that its economic policies and political decisions have provoked.


Since coming into office amid accusations of vote-tampering in the 2013 election, President Maduro seems to have tried hard to prove his critics right. Accused of failing to respect democratic practices and prosecuting political opponents, Maduro has governed in a way that would shame any democratically-minded observer. Though many of the president’s decisions can be individually justified with ad hoc comparisons to practices that are either common or at least acceptable in well-functioning democracies — like the jailing of opponents who have broken the law or the closing of media outlets that call for the overthrow of the government — when seen as part of a pattern, those practices expose a regime that cannot be classified as democratic. Maduro has governed in a way that cannot be labelled as consistent with democratic values. After he admitted defeat in the 2015 legislative election — which is a sign that the opposition can still bring about change through institutional means — he has made every effort to undermine the ability of the National Assembly to serve as an effective check in what should be a divided government.


Many of the regime’s opponents have labelled the Maduro government a dictatorship for a few years now. A few have even compared his regime to Cuba and other non-elected regimes that are, fortunately, no longer common in Latin America. But the president’s decline into authoritarianism is far more nuanced. At least until before his decision to convene a referendum, Maduro had signalled that he respected some basic tenets of democracy. With his term set to expire in 2019, the opposition would have a chance to unseat him. After all, if the opposition easily won the most recent legislative election, worsening economic conditions should make it easier for it to defeat him in the next presidential contest. But his most recent move signals that Maduro will not risk asking Venezuelans to vote on whether he should stay in power. Because he knows he cannot win a competitive election, Maduro has chosen to embark upon a route that will make it impossible for the country to have a competitive election anytime soon.


Maduro won in 2013, but he has not governed democratically. His call for a constitutional convention — while formally consistent with the Constitution — illustrates his willingness to use any means to prevent Venezuelans from choosing their next president.


An appropriate description of Maduro’s regime would be to admit its democratic origins (it won an election in a favourable playing-field) but unequivocally denounce the lack of democratic principles while governing.


Unfit for office

The ill-conceived economic policies that his government has implemented and his inability to be a president of all Venezuelans has rendered Maduro unfit to stay in office. Venezuelans should not be forced to tolerate his irresponsible behaviour any longer. While it is true that he was elected for a six-year term which ends in 2019, his decision to convene a constitutional referendum constitutes a tacit acceptance that he is willing to forego the remainder of his term, if the constitutional assembly so decides.


Obviously, Maduro will not accept competitive, free and fair elections as a mechanism to nominate the members of the constitutional assembly. His government will attempt to pack the assembly with loyalists. But the key element the opposition should seize on is Maduro’s tacit recognition that he is willing to step aside before his six-year term expires. Thus, the opposition should seek common ground with those who, for different reasons, want to defend the 1999 Constitution and build a larger coalition that includes Chávist loyalists who have second doubts about Maduro’s recent move. After all, the most significant legacy of the late Venezuelan transformative president is his Constitution. Now that Maduro has decided to sacrifice Chávez’s Constitution, in an attempt to hold onto power amid growing popular discontent, the opposition can use the growing division within the regime to build a coalition that is strong enough to force Maduro to resign.


After a disastrous four years, President Nicolás Maduro can no longer be classified as a democratic leader. His recent decision to convene a constitutional assembly to replace the Constitution gives the opposition a legitimate opportunity to press reasonable Chávist loyalists to save the 1999 Constitution and pave the way for regime change that can restore competitive elections, sensible economic policies and respect for the rule of law in Venezuela. Maduro’s tactical move has opened up a valuable window of opportunity for the opposition — and they must use Chávez to get rid of Maduro.