After the parliamentary elections of December 2005, the National Electoral Council of Venezuela took more than 42 days to announce results. The CNE, at the time chaired by Jorge Rodriguez (later appointed Chavez’s Vice President), had trouble massaging abstention figures, which to this day are believed to have been above 85%. The current crop of people’s representatives were elected in 2005 by at best, 15% of Venezuela’s electorate. Eventually, Rodriguez did come up with figures more amenable to the caudillo, decreasing the abstention rate to around 75%.
In any case, this percentage in a country where participation levels hover around 70% was extraordinarily odd. The reason was a little reported event that took place in Caracas, on 23 November 2005.
In the presence of electoral observers from Venezuela, Europe and the Organisation of American States (OAS), a representative of the opposition was allowed near a Smartmatic voting machine, for the first and only time ever since. The technician connected his laptop to the voting machine, ran a programme, and started calling out loud how different participants had voted: “Mr. Black you voted A; Mr. Green you voted B; Mr. White you vo…”
Before the third call was made, Jorge Rodriguez abruptly stopped the exercise, ordered the end of the meeting, and dismissed all of those present. Opposition parties claimed at the time that the secrecy of the vote was compromised, and therefore they withdrew from the race en masse. This gave Chavez the current, lame duck congress.
For the last five years, representatives of a minority of Venezuelans have been rubber stamping Chavez’s whims. Opposition-aligned candidates obtained 52% of the vote, in the last parliamentary elections held 26 September. Still, due to malapportionment, gerrymandering and favourable electoral legislation, Chavez’s representatives managed to get a simple majority in the new congress, which in practical terms means that he will no longer be able to steam roll legislation.
Democratic tenets, or being subjected to the will of the majority is not something that keeps Chavez up at night. Foreseeing problems with the opposition bloc, Chavez prepared the ground for coming presidential elections in 2012. He demanded from his congressional minions powers to rule by decree, which were duly granted without much ado, for the next 18 months. The new congress will convene for the first time on 5 January 2011. However Chavez will be able to circumvent congressional hurdles and, more importantly, has created a parallel State structure rapidly approved in congress, whereby power and massive budgets will be deviated to communal organisations under his control.
It is ironic that the debate about democratic deficit is mentioned in relation to a country that has had plenty of elections in the last 11 years. However, contrary to what Chavez’s apologists argue, many elections do not necessarily mean an abundance of democracy.
Perhaps the person that best exemplifies Chavez’s Venezuela democratic deficit is the opposition politician Antonio Ledezma, elected Mayor of Caracas in 2008. Unwilling to concede defeat in the country’s capital, Chavez created a new role, above the office of the mayor in the city’s institutional hierarchy, and stripped the mayor of budget and all powers of his office, rendering electoral results and local democracy meaningless. The power to create such roles, and name totally subservient appointees, was proposed by Chavez in a constitutional amendment put to vote in 2007. It was roundly rejected by the public in the 2007 referendum, but since then, the lame duck congress has made sure to grant Chavez enough power to push through undemocratic reforms without consultation, in violation of electoral results.
In its last days, the chavista congress has rushed through legislation to:
· criminalise freedom of expression and dissent in congress;
· control internet and silence the media;
· block funding to NGOs;
· assault universities’ independence -where Chavez is yet to win his first election;
· transfer city halls, governorships, congress, public prosecution, economic planning powers and budgets to Chavez’s communes.
It must be borne in mind that this is being done after the election of a new, more representative congress, and in addition to the power to rule by decree for the following 18 months. In conclusion, Venezuela can no longer be called a democracy for one simple reason: actions of the dictator in charge prove otherwise.