Nicolás Maduro, President of Venezuela. On March 6, 2017. Xinhua/SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved.
The Venezuelan Parliament has officially declared Nicolás Maduro a usurper of the Presidency. Could we claim we were right in saying that his predecessor, Hugo Chávez, was also a usurper?
Between 2009 and 2012 we carried out a research on political leaders in Argentina, Colombia, Ecuador, Uruguay and Venezuela. We interviewed 285 leaders, including former Presidents, former Vice Presidents, acting Vice Presidents, mayors, deputies, senators, political party presidents, political journalists and trade union officials.
It was a fascinating experience. The Spanish translation of the book we published in 2015, Latin American Leaders (ZED Books, London), is now to be published by the University of Buenos Aires (EUDEBA) Press.
In this book, we presented a typology of political leaders, ranging from democratic to usurpers of power. The usurper category generated a lot of controversy among our colleagues. They argued that it was a very strong word to use for leaders who came to power through democratic elections.
They argued that usurper was an excessive, or too negative a term. But we could not find a word that could explain so clearly what this particular type of dubiously democratic leader is. Our chosen term points to the fact that these leaders can be illegitimate because of the way in which they exercise power.
According to the typology we built, democratic leaders promote the strengthening of democratic institutions, accept the limitations of power established through State rules, and respect and promote democratic rights and civil liberties.
In office, they share power and responsibility, build consensus and avoid polarization. This type of leader has developed his political career within a party of which he is a member. The party tends to maintain its principles and norms and has some internal rules to supervise their members’ performance.
The second type of leader is ambivalently democratic. He respects the rights of citizens, works cooperatively, but seeks to accumulate personal power. He is the type of leader who believes that in order to strengthen his position he needs to negotiate and make concessions.
He can work in a team and he can negotiate with the opposition. But he has a tendency to accumulate power: he abides by the rules, but he grants himself a prominent role in applying them.
Unlike the democratic leader, the ambivalent one respects but does not strengthen democratic institutions. In fact, he can end up weakening democracy in his bid to increase personal power.
The weak usurper of power wavers between challenging and accepting the rule of law and State institutions.
The weak usurper of power wavers between challenging and accepting the rule of law and State institutions. The historical context is crucial here, for it can allow, or block, the leader's capacity to increase his autonomy.
In times of crisis, of collapsing party systems, situations of extreme violence, or abrupt changes in the international context, this type of leader can take advantage of exceptional phenomena such as these and reduce the other institutions’ scope of action.
However, at some point along this process of building his personal power, his party, the judicial system, the Legislative Power, or even social pressure put the brakes on. On these occasions, the weak usurper retreats, hoping that new favorable conditions will arise in the future which will allow him to adjust the political game to his personal or collective goals.
The weak usurper has more faith in his personal power than in political rules. To him, democracy is definitely a means, not an end. He is the type of leader who defies the laws, who is a soft polarizer and a power builder.
In the end, usurpers accumulate power by taking it from the other State institutions, either by minimizing the role of the legislative power, or undermining the independence of the judiciary.
If elected in free elections, the usurpers of power are usually democratic leaders. But they end up tampering with constitutional or electoral tools to increase their personal power.
The usurpers of power’ party membership tends to be a mere tool to increase their personal power, or to win elections. They do not accept to share power in decision-making.
They are autonomous and their power grab allows them to increase their capacity to disregard the law and ignore the citizens. They believe they are, or act as if they were, the only legitimate representatives of the people. They embody politics.
Chavez was a perfect usurper of power. He tampered with the laws, polarized society, and tried to maximize his share of power.
Néstor Kirchner and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner could be said to be weak usurpers. Rafael Correa began as a democratic leader pushing for a new constitution, but became a weak usurper by confronting the press, polarizing society and increasing his personal power.
Chávez was a perfect usurper of power. He tampered with the laws, polarized society, and tried to maximize his share of power. He was democratically elected and used the elections and consultations to turn State institutions into appendices of his personal power and to increase his authority. The Enabling Laws were a tool to usurp power from Congress. And in 2004 the Supreme Court, loyal to Chávez, undermined the power and independence of the judiciary.
Nicolás Maduro is now considered to be a usurper by his country’s National Assembly. His defeat at the 2015 parliamentary elections left him unmoved. He has now assumed the presidency after a dubious electoral triumph and he has repeated his own mistake: facing an unfavourable National Assembly, he has taken office in a tailor-made legislative body.
The coincidence between our typology and the statements by Venezuelan congressmen is not a matter of pride. On the contrary, it is the bitter confirmation that behind a revolutionary discourse the president of Venezuela has devastated the country.
His recurrent lies, the shortage of goods, administrative corruption, the profound deterioration of the economy, the rampant devaluation of the Bolivarian currency, political control, the empowerment of military sects, all come together in the usurpation of power and the establishment of a regime showing clearly totalitarian, militaristic and undemocratic tendencies.
Maybe the word usurper is not harsh enough and we should, plainly and simply, call him a dictator?