Yesterday’s election for 165 representatives in the National Assembly is significant but unlikely to bring about major change in Venezuela, despite the opposition having done better than expected. As this article goes to press, the pro-government United Socialist Party won 94 seats, with 60 for the opposition Democratic Unity, five for other parties, and the rest still undecided.
The opposition claims to have won a majority of the popular vote, but this is apparently not true; exact totals are still not available but the popular vote was very close as between the two big parties.
As expected, most of the international press and its sources hailed the results as a “major blow” to Chávez, paving the way for his possible removal in the presidential election in 2012. But this is exaggerated.
The vote was widely seen as a referendum on Chávez, and it would indeed be quite an anomaly in the history of electoral politics if the government did not lose some support after a recession last year that continued into at least the first quarter of this year. Chávez’s popularity has always gone up and down with the economy, reaching a low during the last recession of 2002-2003, despite the fact that it was caused by an opposition oil strike. His approval rating has fallen from 60 percent in early 2009 to 46 percent last month.
For comparison, President Obama’s approval rating has fallen from 68 percent in April of last year to 45 percent this month, and his party is expected to take big losses in the November Congressional elections here, with some pollsters forecasting a loss of the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives. And this is despite the fact that he clearly inherited the country’s economic problems from his predecessor.
It is not clear why anyone would expect Venezuela to be exempt from the normal workings of electoral politics. The opposition has most of the income and wealth of the country, and most of the media as well. They have no problem getting their message out, even if the government – mostly through Chávez – also has a big megaphone. Obama also faces a strong right-wing media, with Fox News now one of the most popular sources for coverage of the fall elections, but there is much less of an opposition media in the United States than in Venezuela.
Much has been made of the opposition’s winning more than a third of the National Assembly, thus being able to block some important legislation that would “deepen the revolution.” This importance of this result it also greatly exaggerated.
In reality, the government’s having a less than two-thirds majority is unlikely to make much difference. The pace at which it adopts socialist reforms has been limited much more by administrative capacity than by politics. The Financial Times recently added up the value of industries nationalized by the Chávez government. Outside of oil, it came to less than 8 percent of GDP over the last five years. Venezuela still has a long way to go before the state has as much a role in the economy as it does in, for example, France.
On the positive side, the most interesting result of this election is that the opposition participated, has accepted the results, and now has a bloc of representatives that can participate in a parliamentary democracy. If it chooses to do so, this could be an advance for Venezuelan democracy, which has been undermined by an anti-democratic opposition for more than a decade. As opposition leader Teodoro Petkoff has noted, the opposition pursued a strategy of “military takeover” for the first four years, which included a military coup and a devastating oil strike that crippled the economy. In 2004, the opposition went the electoral route and tried to remove Chávez through a referendum; they failed and then promptly refused to recognize the result, despite its certification by international observers such as the Carter Center and the OAS.
They then boycotted the last National Assembly election in 2005, hoping to portray the government as a “dictatorship,” and leaving them without representation for the last five years. This newly elected parliamentary bloc could potentially draw the opposition into real political participation. If that happens, it would be a significant advance for a country that has been too politically polarized for too long.
This column was also published by The Guardian Unlimited.