The transition of power in Venezuela raises the question of how populism and democratic institution-building can coexist. This has a wider relevance across Latin America, say Fabian Bosoer & Federico Finchelstein.
The presidential election in Venezuela on 14 April 2013 and the inauguration of Nicolás Maduro five days later have brought not clarity but rather uncertainty. In one sense it is understandable, for the first electoral succession of power after Hugo Chávez was bound to produce some instability. In another, though, these events - including the very narrow margin of Maduro's victory - present a new paradox in the wider history of Latin American populism. For now, "post-chavismo" performs the less revolutionary role of defending rather than transforming democratic institutions.
This is indeed an odd place for a self-styled "revolutionary" movement to find itself in. When Chávez was alive, the logic of permanent revolution in Venezuela was equated with his own persona as personification of the will of the people. This dynamic nature of populist revolution trumped both institution-building and consensus-building. In the post-chavista context, can revolution and stability be reconciled, and how?
Hugo Chávez received consistent support from millions of voters, which guaranteed him substantial electoral majorities. But like his peers from Argentina, Ecuador and elsewhere, he presented these as a sort of "essential" majority, an expression of the people of the nation as a whole. Conversely, those in the opposition were generally presented as enemies of the nation, even traitors. But now, with the 2013 election, both the government and the opposition headed by Henrique Capriles represent similar numbers of electors. Who then represents the people? The obvious answer would be "all the elected politicians", though this is not how Chávez understood it.
In the present context, the question becomes even more relevant, insofar as a more pluralistic understanding of who "the people" are could open new democratic possibilities for all actors in Venezuela. This, however, is not what seems to be happening, either in Venezuela or in other Latin American countries.
The people vs the opposition
What is new in Venezuela is that the distance has grown between "the people" (as a category that populism claims to embody) and the actual number of people voting for populism. In a post-chavismo environment, populism finds itself more in a position of "largest minority" than of "outright majority". Thus, the populist metaphor of "the people" is being pushed to the limits of its representational capacity. Where the gap in votes is as a mere one percentage point, it is becoming harder to equate the legitimacy of an electoral majority with the totality of the nation.
To be sure, it is possible to explain chavismo's near defeat in the presidential election by reference to the peculiar persona of Chávez's chosen successor, Nicolás Maduro. Maduro at first wanted to mummify Chávez's corpse and then identified the departed leader with a little songbird which he "talked" to. The identification of the heroic comandante with a small bird risks a kind of symbolic emasculation, and according to some reports it has generated some resistance in the chavista sectors of the military. This could be important, for the alliance between social and military pillars is a central element of the chavista formation.
The result of the election has been strongly contested by the opposition. The government first cited the National Electoral Council (CNE's) refusal to allow an audit of the vote, then belatedly acceded to this request. At the same time, when the opposition seemed unwilling to negotiate with the new government, Maduro described them as the forces of "fascism" and contrasted them to his own side, that of "the people and the armed forces." He concluded by saying, "in Venezuela there is no opposition but a conspiracy."
The regional dimension
Most Latin American countries have, one way or another, recognised the electoral legitimacy of the new chavista government, if not necessarily its claim to represent the Venezuelan people as a whole. The United States has been more cautious about recognition, while the Organisation of American States (OAS) supported the opposition's recount request before accepting the new government's legitimacy. For their part, the Unasur countries met to discuss the events and strongly supported the new government of Maduro.
Thus, Latin American countries joined Maduro in his defence of Venezuela's electoral process and its democratic institutions. But what exactly are they defending, and what is the meaning of “democratic reform” after revolution? Does it mean a greater equilibrium among the various branches of government, more checks and balances, the strengthening of open democratic dialogue and political accountability, or the full delegation of power to democratically elected leaders?
The possible contradiction between radicalisation and institucionalidad was suggested recently when the Venezuelan government tried to demolish the Interamerican Commission for Human Rights at the OAS (its Spanish acronym is CDIH-OEA). Although the attempt failed, it exposed the political differences between chavismo and other democracies in the region. Consensus prevailed that this inter-American organism for the defence of human rights and the OAS itself, even with their limits, had an continue to have a crucial role in preserving and strenthening democracies.
Here too, the tensions involved in the processes of institution-making after populist (and "vertical") leaderships raise a broader question for Latin America. The nature of the transition from the populist moment to the affirmation of democratic institutions is central to Latin American processes of regional integration. But the influential legacy of populism makes it unclear whether the "institutionalisation of democracy" and “democratic reforms promoted by populist administrations" will run along the same track.