On September 26th, Venezuela held its first parliamentary elections since 2005. While Hugo Chávez’ United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) retained a majority in Venezuela’s National Assembly, the opposition, largely represented by the Democratic Unity Coalition (MUD), made massive gains. Moreover, according to the OAS, Venezuela’s democratic institutions operated pristinely.i The elections were largely uncontroversial, with few instances of technical error, violence, or accusations of fraud. These elections ultimately proved positive for all parties involved. The PSUV can honestly say that it won the elections; the opposition can honestly say that it dealt the PSUV a harsh blow, and Venezuela as a whole can say that its institutions functioned properly and democratically.
A Referendum on Chávez?
The period between Venezuela’s two parliamentary elections was defined by high levels of polarization and numerous political controversies. Chávez left the 2005 elections with a solid majority, which reflected both his popularity and the decision of numerous opposition parties to boycott the elections.ii Since then, Chávez has embroiled himself in controversy after controversy. Some of these divisive situations, such as the one surrounding his 2006 speech at the UN in which he implied that former U.S. President George W. Bush was the devil, were little more than boisterous verbal gaffes. Others, such as his 2007 attempt to reform the Venezuelan constitution, have had far more serious political consequences. For many observers, the September 26th elections represented a referendum on the past five years of Chavismo. Since the media and polling firms in Venezuela are themselves affected by polarization, the elections may have been the first objective indicator of Chávez’ popularity in years.
Winner #1: The PSUV
By all accounts, the PSUV came out of the parliamentary elections a winner. After all, on the eve of the elections many analysts argued that, because Chávez’s was facing drastically low popularity ratings, the PSUV might lose control of the National Assembly.iii In reality, the PSUV took at least 98 of the Assembly’s 165 seats (some seats remain undecided), giving them a simple majority and putting them just one seat away from being able to grant Chávez special decree powers that would allow him to circumvent the legislature on some issues.iv While this still represents a loss relative to the 114 seats that the PSUV won in 2005,v that relative loss was to be expected given the opposition’s boycott of the 2005 elections. More importantly, the loss was not nearly as disastrous as many predicted going into the elections.
Given the accusations of electoral manipulation that have been frequently leveled against him, Chávez can also take solace in how uncontroversially these elections have unfolded. With no major parties choosing to boycott the elections, a voter turnout of 66 percent (as compared to 25 percent in 2005),vi and no major complaints of fraud, these elections can only bolster Chávez’s democratic legitimacy. Moreover, now that the opposition has gained a significant presence in the National Assembly, it will have far more trouble accusing Chávez of electoral manipulation.
Winner #2: The Opposition
While Chávez and the PSUV clearly left the elections victorious, the opposition has equal cause to celebrate. Their decision to boycott the elections in 2005 was nothing less than disastrous. Rather than seriously delegitimizing Chávez, the boycott effectively allowed him to rule without significant legislative opposition and left the opposition little more than political commentators. These elections, in which the opposition has taken at least 65 of the National Assembly’s legislative seats,vii signify an opportunity for the opposition to reintegrate itself with Venezuela’s democratic institutions.
Because they stopped the PSUV from gaining a two-thirds majority, the opposition will be able to block PSUV appointments and particularly far-reaching legislation. While the PSUV will certainly try to push many major reforms through the National Assembly in the upcoming months before the newly elected representatives take their seats in January 2011, the opposition will be able to slow down the pace of reform considerably once the new National Assembly convenes. Compared to the carte blanche the opposition gave Chávez in 2005, this election is a major step forward for the opposition. Moreover, the opposition will almost certainly try to maintain its momentum and cultivate the opportunity to convert its parliamentary wins into success in the upcoming 2012 presidential elections.
Winner #3: Venezuelan Democracy
A third clear winner is Venezuelan democratic institutions themselves. In the run-up to the parliamentary elections, the legitimacy of many of Venezuela’s democratic institutions was questioned by both international and domestic actors.viii As of yet, no meaningful criticisms have been raised against the most recent elections. Four non-governmental organizations were authorized to monitor the elections, while each coalition was allowed to invite 30 foreign election monitors.ix Although a number of frequent election-monitoring organizations, such as the Carter Center and the OAS were not invited to act as election monitors, 150 representatives of the OAS, as well as members of the European Union, and the United Nations, along with a number of other organizations were invited to observe the elections. It is also worth noting that, opposition critiques notwithstanding, Venezuela has been routinely commended by prominent election monitoring organizations, including the OAS, for its free and fair elections.x Many also noted that it would be extremely difficult for the PSUV to engage in election fraud because they would have had to circumvent Venezuela’s sophisticated electronic voting system, which was endorsed by the Carter Center after its use in the 2006 presidential election.xi These elections have also demonstrated the baselessness of claims of Venezuelan media bias and censorship. In a poll of the two major state-owned television stations and the four private stations, 60.3 percent of political television advertising was pro-opposition.xii
While these elections were successful, the rhetoric surrounding them was still overwhelmingly antagonistic. For example, during the run-up to the elections, a series of accusations were thrown around by both sides regarding Chávez’ right to campaign on behalf of the PSUV. The opposition additionally accused Chávez of engaging in gerrymandering.xiii After the elections, Chávez accused the opposition of manipulating the numbers,xiv while the opposition questioned why the votes took so long to be counted.xv However, there is little reason to believe that any of this is more than political maneuvering. Both Chávez and the opposition have signaled their respect for Venezuela’s electoral process, and given that both, in their respective fashions, are leaving these elections winners, it is unlikely that either will be making any serious accusations in the upcoming weeks.
The September 26th parliamentary elections were an undeniable success. These elections allowed both the opposition and the PSUV to keep their heads held high, and demonstrated the strength of Venezuela’s democratic institutions. However, polarization remains unhealthily high in Venezuela. The rhetoric surrounding the elections remains vicious and vehemently antagonistic. Nevertheless, these elections may well be an important step in ratcheting down Venezuela’s political tension. Both the opposition and the PSUV are now positively invested in Venezuela’s democratic process, which will allow both the PSUV and the opposition to channel their antagonism into institutional mechanisms, rather than vicious personal attacks. Thus, it is not so simple, as per the typical media responses, that the results of the elections either validate or entirely repudiate Chávez. These results authenticate his democracy, but it is a democracy in trouble and highly vulnerable to challenge in subsequent elections In order for Chávez to minimize this vulnerability and maximize political stability it is crucial that all actors come to trust Venezuela’s democratic institutions. The success of these recent elections is an important milestone in Venezuela’s quest to make that goal a reality.