The Meaning of the Venezuelan Election Results

The Chavez government manipulates rules, laws, and institutions as it sees fit. This has been the case for several years and will be its lasting legacy.
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By Thor Halvorssen

CARACAS, Venezuela -- An avalanche of media has declared Hugo Chavez's loss of a two-thirds majority significant. It isn't. On Monday, Venezuela's electoral council announced that political opposition groups had won the majority of the votes in the election for the national assembly, Venezuela's legislature. They simultaneously announced that the Chavez party would retain most of the seats. In other words, those who received the most votes get minority representation. This is puzzling.

Already, Chavez's party is underlining that while they don't have a two-thirds majority (the proportion needed to have control) they do have a three-fifths majority and that this is sufficient to pass an "enabling law" granting Chavez the equivalent of dictatorial powers. So here is the scenario: Before the election he ruled with absolute power including the subservience of the judicial and legislative power and control over the means of production. Now, without the legislature, he will simply get them to quickly pass a law making his absolute power official.

The Chavez government manipulates rules, laws, and institutions as it sees fit. This has been the case for several years and will be its lasting legacy. Despite the outgoing national assembly being a lame duck legislature, be prepared to see them pass all sorts of laws despite having no mandate.

Too many ignore or are simply unaware of the reason why Chavez had full control of the legislature in the first place -- in 2005, all opposition parties boycotted the legislative elections because they were protesting the lack of democracy, the manipulation of the electoral system, the systematic violations of human rights, and the use of the state treasury by Chavez for his own party's benefit. Voters rejected the election en masse with only 17 percent of eligible voters turning out. The OAS and the EU released scathing reports on the entire process. The bleak turnout made that assembly legal but illegitimate. That the opposition was not able to turn all of these facts into a victory and force a redo of that election is baffling. Meanwhile, the Chavez spin machine set into action and the world was led to believe that he had such unanimous support that he ended up with the entire legislature.

After that, the opposition parties ended their boycott and got back into politics, admirably using tactics different from those of the president. Despite the government's use of violence, a politicized judiciary, the shutting down of media critical of the president, the misuse of public funds for the president's party, the cult of personality financed by the state, the use of imprisonment to go after political opponents, the presence of a fear-inducing Cuban intelligence apparatus, and the abuse of federal emergency management laws to control the airwaves for several hours a day to spread political propaganda, the democratic elements in Venezuela are to be commended. What they pulled off on Sunday is extraordinary.

I was asked why, if Chavez is such an autocrat, he didn't rig the election outright. The answer is that Chavez has not yet obtained what his government refers to as "communicational hegemony". There is still one television channel left on the air, Globovision, which provides critical news and analysis despite both of its key owners being in forced exile. The two other remaining independent channels were silenced -- one by being shut down and the other by being bribed and blackmailed. Once the government has the monopoly on media, then it will be impossible, as in Cuba, to have any critical or opposing viewpoints. Any election result is then plausible in a scenario of self censorship and fear.

Chavez's poll numbers are down considerably given that issues such as crime -- Venezuela has one of the highest per capita murder rates in the world (worse than Afghanistan or Iraq) -- and inflation -- Venezuela has the worst rate in the hemisphere -- affect everybody. In the face of these domestic failures he was not going to win outright had the elections been free and fair. That said, the game was stacked: the government used an endless supply of state oil funds to compete against political parties lacking state support, and enforced numerous restrictions on political donations to the opposition. In addition, voter intimidation is rife and loyalty oaths are required from government employees. Imagine what the results would have been had there been an equal playing field.

Given that they couldn't do a simple "we got more votes" trick, the electoral council, controlled entirely by Chavez, chose instead to do political alchemy. This means he did rig it! Consider that the opposition obtained 52% of the votes (probably much more had it been a clean fight) yet does not have a majority of the seats. It is political alchemy resulting from politicized redistricting. For instance, in Caracas the opponents of Chavez got 484,844 votes versus 484,103 of the Chavista party. And the ten seats get split: three for the winners and seven for Chavez. I strongly hope those who cried foul during Bush v. Gore will come out swinging against this injustice just four hours south of Palm Beach County.

It is clear that, even with a stacked deck, the numerical majority of Venezuelans are indicating that they want something different. International elites constantly lecture about how Venezuelan elections are a contest of poor versus rich. The truth of the matter is that the Chavez family and those in government are most of "the rich" -- starting with his brothers Adán, Argenis, and Adelis Chavez and longtime government cronies Diosdado Cabello and Jose Vicente Rangel both of whom merit inclusion in the Forbes Billionaires list. Not surprisingly, Venezuela ranks close to the bottom in Transparency International's corruption index -- tied with Angola and the Congo.

To those in the Chavez political machine, the election simply means a change of tactics. To Chavez personally, it is devastating. He has shown that he cannot stand an opposing voice. His word is final. To quote him, speaking in the third person: "He who betrays Chavez dies politically." Chavez is the revolution. He is the voice of the people. He rules, he doesn't govern. A true leadership contest is unthinkable. If you were to drive from the main airport to the city of Caracas you will see dozens of billboards with his image -- all paid for with state funds and all of them inappropriate in a democracy. It is all about him, all the time. Step out of line and you get expropriated, harassed, persecuted, or even prosecuted and thrown in prison.

A rejection of this sort is humiliating for Chavez. It is sure to cause him an existential crisis. It apparently was agonizing enough that he didn't even poke his head out on his "Balcony of the People" to say hello to his dejected supporters and admit the rout. He chose as a substitute his Twitter account from where he fantasized a "solid victory." A few hours later, he called the international press "revolting" and "liars" and was particularly graphic about CNN's coverage of the elections. During the last referendum, which was the last time the opposition won a majority of votes in a national electoral contest, Chavez went on television and called it a "shit victory" and then proceeded to merrily ignore the results of the election.

Chavez cannot declare defeat. He cannot leave power because this would lead to charges of murder, drug-trafficking on a global scale, corruption charges unlike anything seen in the hemisphere's history, and -- most problematic due to the crimes against humanity element -- charges of collaborating with Colombia's FARC terrorists. While in power he will be untouchable but out of power the line of plaintiffs, prosecutors, and critics is long and includes groups as politically diverse as Reporters Without Borders, the Inter-American Court of Justice, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the families of the victims of the April 11th massacre.

Chavez doesn't know what to do. He has two years to figure it out. It is highly unlikely that he will allow a fair electoral contest. He has disqualified Leopoldo Lopez, a candidate that has outpolled him, forced Manuel Rosales, the last candidate that challenged him, into exile, and opened judicial investigations into those on the electoral horizon. Chavez will do everything and anything in the next two years to get another term. But this should be a surprise to no one. He has already said it numerous times: he plans to stay until 2030.

Thor Halvorssen is president of the Human Rights Foundation and founder of the Oslo Freedom Forum. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.

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