The Venezuelan electorate is bent on using democratic mechanisms to fuel the demagogic ambitions of its populist president, Hugo Chávez. The voters have backed him and his party in thirteen of the fourteen elections and referendums held in the country since Chávez was inaugurated in February 1999. Now, on 15 February 2009, a majority of them went so far as to grant him his wish of being president for life: for in the referendum on that day 56% voted to lift term-limits on elected officials, thereby eroding a noble Latin American tradition of safeguarding democracy by limiting incumbency.
The distant hope
So argue Hugo Chávez's opponents at home and
overseas - particularly in Washington, were the anti-Chávez lobby is striving
to maintain the disproportionate influence it had under George W Bush into the
Barack Obama administration. After the 15 February referendum, media and
academic commentators have painted a frighteningly dystopian vision of
Venezuela's political future. It all amounts to significant pressure on the new
Democratic administration to follow the Bush policy of isolating and
destabilising Chávez. Julia Buxton is senior research fellow in the department of peace studies, Bradford
University. Her work includes The
Failure of Political Reform in Venezuela (Ashgate, 2001)
Also by Julia Buxton in openDemocracy:
"The deepening of Venezuela's Bolivarian revolution: why most people don't get it"
(4 May 2007)
"Hugo Chávez and Venezuela: questions of leadership"
(25 September 2008)
There had been high hopes in Washington that the opposition would build on its defeat of Chávez in the referendum in December 2007 on lifting term-limits held, as well as on gains made in the November 2008 regional elections (including the capture of the municipal capital, Caracas). A further defeat for Chávez would have chastened the president's grand ambition to build "21st-century socialism" in Venezuela. Along with the declining price of oil, the mainstay of the Venezuelan economy, and domestic turbulence preoccupying Russia and Iran - Venezuela's partners in building a multi-polar world order - a second referendum defeat would have made Chávez a weakened proposition.
So why did the electorate ruin this scenario by turning out in significant numbers (the turnout was 66%) to approve this major change? The government's opponents and critics point to the usual problems: the administration's abuse of public spending, violation of election laws, intimidation of the opposition, manipulation of voters, even anti-semitism. A Spanish deputy from the European parliament - in Venezuela as an international election observer - was moved to violate all norms of election observation by condemning dictatorship in Venezuela as soon as he landed in the country.
The terms of victory
The reality is more complex, democratic - and worrying for Chávez's opponents. The decision by Venezuelan voters to lift term-limits is of regional as well as domestic significance. It merits cool-headed scrutiny by the new United States state-department team ahead of the expected meeting between Chávez and Obama at the fifth Summit of the Americas on 17-19 April 2009 in Trinidad.
The "yes" vote won - fairly and freely according to international observers - for three reasons, which have nothing to do with intimidation or fraud. First, Chávez learnt from past defeat. Instead of the unwieldy sixty-nine proposals that bewildered voters in December 2007, there was just one question in the new proposal: should five articles in the 1999 constitution be amended in order to lift the two-term limit on officials serving in elected office?
Chávez, a formidable campaigner, expended significant energy mobilising his supporters and explaining why lifting term-limits - and opening up the prospect of his re-election in 2012 - was in the interest of the Venezuelan people. Unlike December 2007, he did not take success for granted. And in contrast to the messy infighting over candidacies in the ruling PSUV ahead of the November 2008 regional elections, the Chavistas unified around a single proposition and a single figure: Hugo Chávez.
Second, the Chavistas' success also reflected the ongoing weakness and disarray of the opposition, dashing critics' hopes of presenting Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton with a viable alternative to Chávez. In theory, Chávez could now outlast Obama. There was no opposition campaign to speak of other than disruptive protests by belligerent students, feted and funded as democratic freedom-fighters by America's libertarian right. Key opposition leaders were outfoxed by the extension of the term-limit issue to all elected officials (not just the presidency); and they relied on the old (and repeatedly unsuccessful) formula of branding Chávez a demagogue in recycling their ever-negative campaign message.
The context of change
The third and and even more important issue underlying the referendum result relates to how Venezuelans understand and interpret democracy, and the type of democracy that they want to see in their country. A majority of voters did not support lifting term-limits because they were misled or manipulated by Chávez or because they have an authoritarian political streak. Rather, as the much respected regional Latinobarometro survey has shown on an annual basis, Venezuelan public opinion is one of the most democratic in the region and strongly opposed to autocracy. Venezuelans consistently express a high level of support for their political model, and confidence in the democratic system is constantly above the regional average. While critics may see Chávez's Bolivarian revolution as an authoritarian project, majority opinion in Venezuela judges it democratic.
In this broader context, the fundamentals of democracy are not altered by the lifting of term-limits. If anything, they may be enhanced. Whether or not Chávez intends to be president for life, he still has to face the electorate in 2012 if he wants to remain in power; and even then there is no guarantee that he will win a third term and retain the presidency. To do so, he needs to respond to popular concerns relating to crime, insecurity, corruption and inflation - or he runs the risk of defeat.
Moreover, the Venezuelan constitution provides for mid-term "recall referendums" on elected officials, thereby maintaining checks and balances on government at national, regional and municipal level. Term-limits have traditionally been deeply destabilising in Venezuelan politics, producing factional power struggles and lame-duck presidents. This can now be avoided, while allowing the electorate to stick with their preferred candidate - a democratic innovation. True, incumbency brings undoubted benefits; but they are delivered only if voters are contented with the performance of ruling officials and the opposition fails to present a viable alternative.
In the liberal-democratic model, term-limits are viewed as essential for the checking and balancing of executive power. But this emphasis on procedural mechanics and ideal-types does not match popular understanding or expectations of democracy at the grassroots of Venezuelan society. Most Venezuelan voters are clearly of the view that term-limits are not the only, or necessarily an invaluable, mechanism for restraining power. A host of other parliamentary systems have survived without limiting prospects for re-election. Jose Miguel Insulza, secretary-general of the Organisation of American States, is among those who has highlighted the democratising potentialities of lifting term-limits.
Venezuela has taken the regional lead in implementing projects of major social transformation that challenge the power and vested interests of minority elites. Hugo Chávez argued that the opportunity to run for a third term was essential for the consolidation of his Bolivarian revolution. His lead is now likely to be followed by Alvaro Uribe of Colombia, Evo Morales of Bolivia, Rafael Correa of Ecuador and Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua. Each of these heads of state are considering lifting term-limits on the basis that this will allow for continuity and the institutionalisation of change. In a region traditionally characterised by instability and fragile institutions, this may prove to be a good thing.
The clear message to the United States state department is that South American societies want to mould their own unique political systems and break with a rigid and limited liberal-democratic model that minimises popular input. Variation and innovation in this context amount to pluralism not authoritarianism.
What is happening in Venezuela? openDemocracy's many articles on the Hugo Chávez years
offer detailed, independent analysis and argument. They include:
Ivan Briscoe, "The invisible majority: Venezuela after the revolution" (25 August 2004)
Ivan Briscoe, "All change in Venezuela's revolution?" (25 January 2005)
Jonah Gindin & William I Robinson, "The United States, Venezuela, and ‘democracy promotion'" (4 August 2005)
Ivan Briscoe, "Venezuela: a revolution in contraflow" (10 February 2006)
Ben Schiller, "The axis of oil: China and Venezuela" (2 March 2006)
Phil Gunson, "Hugo Chávez's provocative solidarity" (14 June 2006)
Phil Gunson, "Bolivarian myths and legends" (1 December 2006)
Juan Gabriel Tokatlian, "After Bush: dealing with Hugo Chávez" (13 March 2007)
Phil Gunson, "Hugo Chávez: yo, el supremo" (13 April 2007)
Julia Buxton, "The deepening of Venezuela's Bolivarian revolution: why most people don't get it" (4 May 2007)
Ivan Briscoe, "Venezuela:
is Hugo Chávez in control?" (9 August
Stephanie Blankenburg, "Venezuela: a complicated referendum" (4 December 2007)
Adam Isacson, "The Colombia - Venezuela - Ecuador tangle" (17 March 2008)
Ivan Briscoe, "Venezuela: troops, polls and an itch at the top" (21 November 2008)