Comparing Democratic Institutions in Venezuela and Canada

Recent remarks by Canadian State of Foreign Affairs Minister Peter Kent with regard to the media and “shrinking democratic space” in Venezuela are but a few of a number of disapproving comments expressed by the Canadian government over events in the country in the past few years. Deciding whether democracy is improving or “shrinking” in Venezuela requires a more thoroughgoing and contextualized look at the country's democratic institutions, rather than short glimpses into single events.

Recent remarks by Canadian State of Foreign Affairs Minister Peter Kent with regard to the media and “shrinking democratic space” in Venezuela [1] are but a few of a number of disapproving comments expressed by the Canadian government over events in the country in the past few years. But given that the remarks came during a three month prorogation of the Canadian Parliament, it was only to be expected that criticisms would arise over whether the government’s comments actually stem from genuine concerns over democracy [2]. Regardless of what full motivations may be behind Kent’s comments, the Canadian government’s ongoing sweeping claims of faltering democracy in the country are deserving of close examination. Deciding whether democracy is improving or “shrinking” in Venezuela requires a more thoroughgoing and contextualized look at the country’s democratic institutions, rather than short glimpses into single events.

What are some of the formal democratic institutions in Venezuela? And, given recent criticisms by the Canadian government, how might some of Venezuela’s democratic institutions actually compare with those of the country’s northern neighbor? By juxtaposing various aspects of the democratic systems of both Canada and Venezuela we can gain a better understanding of the functionality of each system, evaluate the validity of Canadian representative’s accusations, and dispel some myths. As shown in this analysis, many aspects of Venezuela’s system of democracy are not substantially different than those of Canada, while many other key aspects actually compare favorably when juxtaposed with Canada’s system.

Of course, significant difficulties exist in any attempt to compare two different and complex democratic systems, each of which will invariably have their own unique characteristics and peculiarities. An added difficulty in making any comparison between Canada and Venezuela is that while one country’s system in defined as a representative democracy, the other is purported to be – or purported to be on the way to becoming – a participatory democracy [3]; these characterizations imply differences with regard to the organizational structure of democratic institutions, differences which may be fundamental. Despite such difficulties meaningful comparisons can still be drawn.

Analyses of democratic systems can vary from discussions of overarching political institutions and processes (e.g. laws, and federal elections) to discussions on economics (e.g. the degree of wealth inequality in a country, the ability of a person to make decisions in the workplace, etc) as well as other topics. The objective here has been to make a comparison of the democratic institutions in Venezuela and Canada within the political framework of liberal democracy, but also to make comparisons in terms of aspects of participatory democracy in both countries.

Historical Factors and Organization

Venezuela and Canada have very different histories, however one commonality is that, like much of the rest of the world, both countries have roots in colonialism. Canada, founded in 1867, is a former colony of Britain. The country was originally established as a Federation of four provinces and has grown to include 10 provinces and three territories (the most recent territory – Nunavut – was established in 1999). Through various forms of legislation since Confederation, Canada has increased its independence from Great Britain, although remnants of the country’s colonial past persist to present day; Canadian city names and streets still bear the names of British cities and leaders, and most significantly in this vein, the Queen of Britain formally remains the Head of State in Canada. This has many significant implications for how government functions in Canada.

Canada’s form of government remains a Constitutional Monarchy. Although it has been amended and reformed at various times during the past (such as the creation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982) the 1867 constitution remains the only constitution Canada has ever had in its history.

Venezuela was established as a colony of Spain in 1522. After centuries of social upheaval Venezuelan independence was finally attained in 1811, and following years of military governments, a moderate amount of political stability is said to have gained a foothold in the mid 1900s. However, between the late 1950s and 1990s, Venezuela’s political system was marked by a power sharing deal known as the Punto Fijo Pact, an agreement between political parties that largely restricted popular participation in the democratic process. Of course in 1998, Hugo Chavez’s party the Movement for the Fifth Republic (MVR) was elected to power. Preceding Chavez’s election was a substantial period of economic decline and a dramatic increase in poverty rates, which had contributed to much disillusionment with the prevailing political parties. The election of Chavez and the years that followed ushered in a veritable sea change in the political landscape in Venezuela, with the previously entrenched political parties becoming marginalized and replaced with leftist groups such as the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV).

In 1999, by popular referendum, the Venezuelan populace approved a new constitution. The 1999 constitution is the country’s 27th to date, and has been described by various observers as one of the most progressive constitutions in the world [4].

Venezuela’s government organizational structure is defined as a Federal Presidential Republic. The country is divided into 23 individual states, which are subsequently organized into 9 administrative regions.


Legislatures can be viewed as possessing the highest of political powers in both Canada and Venezuela. Responsible for the formation of law, the legislature establishes the conditions by which all other forms of government adhere to and thus has the most fundamental influence over political direction. Members of the executive and judicial branches of government are subordinate to the legislative branch.

Before the 1999 constitution Venezuela had a bicameral legislature consisting of two houses, i.e. the Senate and the National Assembly. This system was similar to the bicameral legislatures which still exist in Canada and the United States. However, the 1999 constitution reduced the legislature to a single house, the 167 member National Assembly [5]. Members of the National Assembly are elected by popular vote and serve a five year term, with the possibility of indefinite reelection. In 2005, the Venezuelan opposition famously boycotted the National Assembly elections in protest, resulting in every last National Assembly seat being filled with a Chavez supporter [6].

In Canada, the legislature or Parliament is bicameral and consists of the Canadian House of Commons and the Senate. The House of Commons members total 308, who are all popularly elected [7]. Senate members in Canada (a total of 105) are not popularly elected but appointed by the Governor General on the advice of the Prime Minister (appointment powers officially lie with the Governor General, although it is customary for the Governor General to accept the Prime Minister’s appointment suggestions) [8].

The stated purpose of a bicameral legislature, as opposed to a unicameral legislature, is to provide checks and balances. With two houses, it is said that each house can work as a check on the other as laws are being passed. An argument can be made however that a unicameral legislature is more democratic. This is because, as is the case in the United States, each state elects the same number of senators regardless of the state’s population (9), which can lead to disproportionate representation. Or, as is the case in Canada, senators are not elected by popular vote, but are directly appointed by the governing party (the most recent appointments to the Canadian Senate were made by Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party during a period of only 31% popular support for the party across the country). Furthermore, senators in Canada are appointed to their positions permanently, and are able to serve for any period of time until they are 75 years of age [10] [11] [12].

Some political parties in Canada continue to campaign on a promise to abolish the senate and create a unicameral legislature. However, as none of these parties have been elected federally, this has not yet happened.

Executive Branches

Canada’s political system has been modeled after the Westminster system of Britain. As such, the executive branch of government consists of “the Crown” (the Queen and her representative the Governor General) the Prime Minister, and a Cabinet of Ministers. The number of cabinet ministers is not fixed and can change from government to government. While the role of the British Monarch and her representatives is now essentially limited to a ceremonial position in Canada, it is notable that the Crown can still play a very significant role in Canadian politics. This was dramatically demonstrated recently with two consecutive shut downs of federal parliament, which sparked outrage for the Canadian public [13] [14]. While only acting on the advice of the Prime Minister and ruling Conservatives on this prorogation of parliament, the existence of the formal powers of the Queen allow the governing party to have significant executive control over other elected officials in the country.

In Venezuela, significant to the 1999 constitution, presidential term limits were increased from five years to six years and the possibility of immediate re-election was established [15]. Previously, presidents could be re-elected for another term in office, but not immediately following their first term. Following the rejection of a constitutional amendment vote in 2007, which in part would have abolished the maximum two term limit for the Head of State, Chavez did win a second referendum vote in 2009 that effectively abolished term limits for all elected officials. As such, there are now no limits on re-election of the president in Venezuela, and Chavez will be able to run for re-election is 2012 [16]. Also of significance with regard to the executive in Venezuela is that the president now has the ability to dissolve the National Assembly [17].

Although the elimination of limits with regard to presidential reelections has raised eyebrows in and outside of Venezuela, it must be remembered that there are no executive term re-election limits in many other countries in the world, including Canada. In Canada, as long as the political party gains minority or majority support during the election process, it is possible for the party leader to be re-elected as Prime Minister for an indefinite period [18].

Judicial Branches

The courts in Canada are roughly divided into a four tier system. At the federal level are the Supreme Court (which consists of nine justices including a chief justice) and the federal court, and in each province or territory are the “superior courts” and the provincial and territorial courts. Federal level judges in Canada are appointed by the Governor General on the advice of the governing federal party’s cabinet. The judges of the superior courts in the territories and provinces are also selected by the governing federal party. Provincial and territorial court judges are appointed by the Lieutenant Governor, who, as the Queen’s provincial representative, acts on the advice of provincial cabinet. The Supreme Court of Canada is the final court of appeal in the country and its decisions are binding on all other courts at all levels. The courts at the various levels all handle different kinds of cases, as defined in the Constitution of Canada (19).

Judges in Canada are appointed for life terms and can serve until the age of 75 [20]. Judges can be recalled by the Governor General on the advice of Parliament, with just cause. In addition to judges being appointed for life terms, the fact that judges are appointed by the governing party and not elected by one or both houses of the legislature remains a point of contention.

In Venezuela, the court system is one of the most criticized aspects of the government, and upon election the Chavez government undertook efforts to overhaul the system. The new constitution put the entire court system under the control of the Supreme Tribunal of Justice [21]. In addition, in 2000, the executive set up a commission to review the positions of judges currently serving. The commission’s review process resulted in the majority of judges being dismissed due to charges of corruption, who were then replaced with provisional judges [22].

While the 1999 constitution states that the National Assembly is responsible for electing individual judges for single 12 year terms, it appears that most of the once provisional judges have been appointed for permanent terms [23]. While this process alone has no doubt raised accusations of political bias in Venezuela, it is not the only point of contention. Since the election of Chavez, the judiciary has seen an increase of 12 judges [24], which has been criticized as a court packing move. While the overhaul of the court system may have been undertaken with the aim of improving its function and its independence, it appears that the judiciary is still under heavy influence by the executive.

Venezuela’s Two Additional Branches of Government

The principle of separation of powers in democratic countries is usually exemplified by the existence of the above three branches of government. However, in addition to the legislative, executive and judicial branches of government, the 1999 constitution of Venezuela established two additional branches. These include a citizens branch, and an electoral branch [25].

The purpose of the citizens branch is to monitor the actions of the other four branches of government and ensure that these branches adhere to their constitutionally determined functions. The branch consists of an attorney general, the human rights defender, and the comptroller general. The stated responsibilities of these officials are to watch for violations of the law, to monitor the government’s adherence to human rights, and to ensure the proper administration and use of public funds, respectively. Each official in the citizen’s branch is elected for a single seven year term [26].

The electoral branch consists of a National Electoral Council, the principle purpose of which is to oversee the organization of state, regional and municipal elections and referenda, and to ensure proper electoral procedure. The National Electoral Council consists of five principle members, which are elected by majority vote. The National Electoral Council can also oversee the functioning of non governmental civil society elections, upon request [27].

Members of both the citizen’s branch and electoral branch are elected by the National Assembly. In the case of the citizens branch, if a two thirds majority on a candidate cannot be reached then the decision is put to a general public vote [28]. The creation of these two extra branches of government establishes further checks and balances on the other branches of government.

Elections and Electoral Processes

Canada does not follow a set time frame for elections. At either the federal or provincial level, elections can be called at various times, even in consecutive years [29]. Canadian federal elections and referenda are overseen by Elections Canada, an independent body that reports to the Canadian Parliament [30]. It consists of three principle members, which include the chief electoral officer, a commissioner of Canadian elections, and a broadcasting arbitrator. The chief electoral officer is elected by the House of Commons, who then appoints the commissioner and broadcasting arbitrator. The chief electoral officer serves until retirement or resignation, or can be removed by just cause by the Governor General [31].

Individual provincial and territorial elections (and their municipalities) in Canada are organized and overseen by respective provincial elections groups. Similar to the situation for federal elections, the legislature of each province or territory appoints a chief electoral officer, who then appoints other electoral officials. The actual appointment of the chief electoral officer is carried out by the province’s Lieutenant Governor, who acts on the advice of the members of the legislature [32]. Provincial and territorial law in Canada prohibits municipal election candidates from campaigning by party stripe [33]. Therefore while candidates may campaign along ideological lines, municipal elections in Canada are non partisan. Also, unlike federal and provincial elections, municipal elections in Canada are held at fixed and regular times.

In Venezuela, presidential elections are held every six years, National Assembly elections are held every five years, and regional elections for governors and mayors are held every four years [34]. As in other presidential systems, it is customary for mayors and other municipal electoral candidates to campaign according to party affiliation. It is notable that prior to 1988, the Venezuelan populace were unable to directly elect mayors and governors. Previous to this time, mayors and governors were appointed by state representatives [35].

Canada has established election financing regulations, both in terms of public financing of political parties (i.e. parties can now be partially reimbursed for their election campaign expenses if they receive a certain amount of the vote), as well as a per-person limit on the amount of money that may be contributed to political parties [36]. Public financing of political parties was commonplace in Venezuela prior to 1999, however due to public discontent with the established parties, the use of public funds for political party support was abolished as part of the new constitution [37].


Referenda are one method for the public to voice concerns and to apply their will directly, between elections. The most recent referendum put before the Canadian public was in 1995 where the public voted on the possibility of sovereignty for the province of Quebec. In Canada, at the federal level, referenda can only be triggered by the government in power as no legislation exists to support the ability for citizens to petition for them, or to subsequently recall elected officials. At the provincial and territorial level, one province has created legislation for citizens’ petitioning for referenda. Federal referenda are generally rare in Canada, while non-binding plebiscites on contentious issues are at least more frequent [38].

In Venezuela the 1999 constitution established the right of citizens to petition for four different types of referenda, including consultative, recall, approving and rescinding referenda [39]. These referenda can be initiated by citizens, the National Assembly, or the President. Consultative referenda are non-binding and may be used for gauging public opinion on various issues, such as an economic trade agreement. Recall, approving and rescinding referenda are all binding votes. Recall referenda can be applied to any elected official, from the level of mayor up to the Presidency [40]. Approving and rescinding referenda can be used to pass, change or remove laws, or to amend the constitution [41]. For public petitioning of referenda, generally 10%-20% of registered voter signatures are required to trigger a public vote [42]. The most recent referendum in Venezuela was in 2009 and regarded the ending of term limits for elected officials, including the President, National Assembly members, mayors, and state governors.

Participatory Democracy and Constitutions

In addition to the possibility of petitioning for and voting in referenda, there are a number of other ways in which participatory democracy has been enhanced in Venezuela since the 1999 constitution. Some significant examples of this include the increased involvement of civil society in government decision-making processes, social auditing processes, and the creation of communal councils.

Increased public presence in government decision-making is shown by, for example, the participation of non-governmental groups in the nomination process for national electoral council candidates and citizens volunteering with the various ongoing health missions. With regard to the social auditing process, the law allows citizens to request financial reports and records from government agencies. This increases public oversight on the expenditure of public funds, on public projects and government institutions. Finally, perhaps the most significant example of participatory democracy in the country are the communal councils. Communal councils are composed of groups of people (no more than a few hundred people per council) who join together to plan work projects and/or the expenditure of public funds. Notably, communal council decisions are binding, such that mayors must abide by the decisions of the majority of the councils. Thousands of these councils exist across the country and often they receive direct funding from the federal government for community projects [43].

Grassroots action is common in Canada, and there are many groups of concerned citizens fighting for social causes in their communities. At least when compared to Venezuela, however, this grassroots action would seem to take place to an overall lesser degree. Generally, grassroots political involvement is not unified by an overall political vision or cause, but instead is guided by individual causes and on behalf of certain groups, with the battles being fought usually without any direct political involvement and with lower numbers of active people in general. Civil society groups in Canada do not necessarily enjoy the same consideration as might currently be enjoyed in Venezuela, and while the general public may from time to time be consulted even for the formation of some laws, this consultation is usually not a mandatory requirement. Consultation with civil society groups is usually through the voluntary discretion of elected or appointed officials, or a result of strong pressure from the public.

One would be remiss to discuss the many aspects of participatory democracy in Venezuela without highlighting the significance of the 1999 constitution and the part the constitution has played in solidifying their presence. Venezuela’s constitution does actually goes as far as describing the country as a participatory democracy; as such, the constitution lays the groundwork for taking Venezuela’s democratic system beyond the limitations of representative democracy to a more inclusive and comprehensive level. The constitution is characterized by a thorough description of citizen’s rights, the relationship between citizens and governmental institutions, and the role of the government with respect to service to the public. Social rights such as health care, tertiary education, the right to employment and housing are incorporated. Fittingly, even the way the constitution was created involved thorough public involvement; the Venezuelan populace voted on whether to engage in a process to rewrite the constitution, were involved in the formation of the content of the constitution and the direct election of the members of the constitutional assembly, and later voted to approve the final document. These are opportunities never enjoyed by any generation of Canadians.

When juxtaposed against the participatory aspects of Venezuela’s constitution, the representative character of Canada’s constitution becomes more apparent. While there are without doubt merits to aspects of the constitution, it does not have the same comprehensive character and aside from the 1982 addition of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, there really is virtually no reference to “the citizen” or “the public” in the entirety of the text. The effect of the lack of participatory guarantees in the Canadian constitution is evident when citizen participation is simply blocked from important processes, while justifications are made with appeals to long-standing traditions of representative and parliamentary democracy in the country.

Political Culture

While other parties do run in elections, three political parties generally predominate in Canada: the Conservative Party, Liberal Party, and New Democratic Party. The Conservative Party, although it holds power, does not have active parties in some Canadian provinces. The party is a new creation that formed in 2004 following the merger of the right-wing Progressive Conservative and Reform parties. The Liberal Party is generally accepted as right of center, as are the Conservatives. The New Democratic Party grew from socialist roots before being reformed into a more social democratic party during the 1960s. For virtually all of Canadian history, federal power has been held by the Liberal or Conservative parties, although the federal NDP have made gains over the years. Voter turnout during elections has generally been on the decline since the early 1990s, with the most recent federal election resulting in the lowest voter turnout in Canadian history (59%) [44].

In contrast, and while Venezuela has always had a strong grassroots political culture, the population of Venezuela have become more engaged in political matters since the 1990s. Rallying around the concepts of Bolivarianism and 21st Century Socialism, Venezuelan society has become increasingly involved in the democratic process. This was shown, in but one example, during the 2006 presidential election which resulted in the country’s highest voter turnout ever with 74% of voters casting ballots. The demographics of political participation have even changed; whereas previous to 1998 political involvement in Venezuela was generally limited to more affluent groups (even Chavez is said to have been originally elected by the middle class), the past decade has been characterized by a large increase in the participation of the poor and previously excluded [45].

Along with increased political involvement and the rise of the concepts of Bolivarianism and 21st Century Socialism has come increased political polarization in Venezuela. This confrontation between different groups reached a peak during 2002, in which media groups were shown to have conspired with members of the military in the staging of a coup, temporarily removing Hugo Chavez from the presidency and dissolving the popularly approved 1999 constitution [46]. Although there have been dramatic political clashes in Canada during its history, there really is no parallel for that which occurred in Venezuela in 2002. One must consider the seriousness of such events and the effect that such events have on shaping the political culture and discourse in the Venezuela.

Concluding Remarks

While ongoing debate over the Chavez government’s relationship with the country’s news media is surely legitimate and important, one can see the folly of the Canadian government’s continued claims of faltering democracy in Venezuela when looking at the situation with some attempt at objectivity. As shown in this analysis, many aspects of Venezuela’s system of democracy are not substantially different than those in Canada, while other key aspects actually compare favorably when juxtaposed with Canada’s system. In terms of the creation of a more inclusive and comprehensive constitution, the establishment of a unicameral and more democratic legislature, the ability of citizens to initiate referenda, recall elected officials, the various forms of participatory democracy, a higher general involvement of citizens in the democratic process, not to mention the basic ability of citizens to elect their head of state, Venezuela would seem a step ahead. While Venezuelans have seen an increased concentration of power in the executive branch of government in recent years this has been offset by the ability of the citizenry to recall elected officials, including the President. Through the popular ratification of the 1999 constitution Venezuelans have allowed for an increased role of democratic government in their country, which must be considered when analyzing specific situations or issues in the country.

On the other hand, while there are undoubtedly many merits to the Canadian system of representative democracy, citizens remain unable to recall elected officials, initiate referenda, or have full democratic control over the Canadian Parliament, among other key deficiencies. Contrary to claims from current representatives in the country, Canada’s democracy could actually be improved if practices similar to those that are being taken up in Venezuela were adopted in Canada.


  1. Canada Concerned Over Venezuelan Suspension of TV Stations www.international.gc.ca/media/aff/news-communiques/2010/046.aspx?lang=eng

  2. Canada Accuses Venezuela of Stifling Democracy While Parliament Remains Prorogued www.handsoffvenezuela.org/canada_accuses_venezuela_of_stifling_democracy.htm

  3. Moving Beyond Representation: Participatory Democracy and Communal Councils in Venezuela www.upsidedownworld.org/main/content/view/2090/1/

  4. The Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela www.axisoflogic.com/artman/publish/Article_29878.shtml

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  9. The United States Constitution http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/constitution_amendments_11-27.html#17

  10. Harper Names Five to Senate

11.  Prorogation Tightens Gap Between Tories, Liberals

12.  The Canadian Senate www.thecanadianencyclopedia.com/index.cfm?PgNm=TCE&Params=A1ARTA0007286

13.  Thirteen Months, Two Prorogations of Parliament

14.  Thousands Protest Parliament’s Suspension

15.  Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela www.analitica.com/bitblioteca/venezuela/constitucion_ingles.pdf

16.  Venezuelans Vote to Eliminate Two Term Limit on All Elected Office 54.4% to 45.6%

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18.  Term Limits – How long can a world leader stay in the top job?

19.  Constitution of Canada

20.  Constitution of Canada

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23.  Changing Venezuela by Taking Power – The History and Policies of The Chavez Government. 2006.

24.  Changing Venezuela by Taking Power – The History and Policies of The Chavez Government. 2006.

25.  Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela www.analitica.com/bitblioteca/venezuela/constitucion_ingles.pdf

26.  Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela www.analitica.com/bitblioteca/venezuela/constitucion_ingles.pdf

27.  Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela www.analitica.com/bitblioteca/venezuela/constitucion_ingles.pdf

28.  Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela www.analitica.com/bitblioteca/venezuela/constitucion_ingles.pdf

29.  The Electoral System of Canada – The Federal Electoral Process www.elections.ca/content.asp?section=gen&document=part2&dir=ces&lang=e&anchor=28&textonly=false#28

30.  Elections Canada.

31.  The Chief Electoral Officer of Canada: Appointment of the chief Electoral Officer

32.  Canadian Lieutenant-Governors www.thecanadianencyclopedia.com/index.cfm?PgNm=TCE&Params=A1ARTA0004677

33.  Local Elections in Canada

34.  Consejo Nacional Electoral

35.  Political Parties and Social Change

36.  2003 Electoral Reform – Political Financing

37.  Changing Venezuela by Taking Power – The History and Policies of The Chavez Government. 2006.

38.  Referendums in Canada: The Effect of Populist Decision-making on Representative Democracy

39.  Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela www.analitica.com/bitblioteca/venezuela/constitucion_ingles.pdf

40.  Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela www.analitica.com/bitblioteca/venezuela/constitucion_ingles.pdf

41.  Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela www.analitica.com/bitblioteca/venezuela/constitucion_ingles.pdf

42.  Changing Venezuela by Taking Power – The History and Policies of The Chavez Government. 2006.

43.  Changing Venezuela by Taking Power – The History and Policies of The Chavez Government. 2006.

44.  Voter Turnout Lowest On Record

45.  Changing Venezuela by Taking Power – The History and Policies of The Chavez Government. 2006.

46.  The Revolution Will Not be Televised. www.video.google.com/videoplay?docid=5832390545689805144#