A New Opportunity for Venezuela’s Socialists

The recent National Assembly election represents a new opportunity for the governing socialists to learn from past errors and to move forward in their program to construct 21st century socialism. But it also represents a comeback for Venezuela's once moribund opposition.

The good news for Venezuela’s socialist and pro-Chavez forces is that while the September 26 National Assembly election might seem to be a disappointing result, because Chavez’s party won only about 50% of the popular vote, it is actually quite impressive. That is, after nearly 12 years in government and after two particularly bad years, in which the economy shrank, in which there were numerous blackouts due to a severe drought and a lack of hydroelectric power, in which crime seemed to reach new highs, and in which government mismanagement caused tens of thousands of tons of food to rot, it is actually rather impressive that about 50% of the population would vote for Chavez’s party. This represents a new opportunity for the governing socialists to learn from past errors and to move forward in their program to construct 21st century socialism. 

On a district-by-district basis, this result translated into giving Venezuela’s governing party, the PSUV (United Socialist Party of Venezuela), 98 seats in the National Assembly (AN), to the 65 seats of the opposition coalition MUD (Table of Democratic Unity) (with two going to the independent party PPT). The opposition thus achieved its goal of preventing a two-thirds majority for the PSUV. Thus, given their near complete absence in the previous AN, this result also represents a comeback for the once moribund opposition. 

Why “only” 49% of the vote and 59% of the legislators? 

Chavez’s critics now argue that the PSUV’s new 59% majority in the National Assembly, which is 9 points higher than its popular vote, is proof of an unfair electoral system. In particular, they point to a new electoral suffrage law that was passed in 2009, which weakened the previously existing proportional representation system. The change is a bit complicated, but given that this has become a major issue in the international media, it is worth explaining. 

First of all, Venezuela has a mixed voting system, which gives 30% or 52 out of 165 seats in the National Assembly to statewide proportional party representation and the other 113 seats to directly elected electoral district representatives. Voters thus have two types of votes, one for a state party list of candidates and another for one to three individual electoral district representatives (the number of district representatives depends on the size of the district). For the 2000 and 2005 national assembly elections the electoral law stipulated that the statewide party list vote (Venezuela has 26 federal states) should be considered in conjunction with the direct candidate votes, so that if a party wins a direct representative in that state, it would receive one less representative via the party list.[1] This system, which is modeled on Germany’s, guarantees that small parties could be represented in the legislature even if they did not win any directly elected district representatives, as long as they got over a certain percentage of the statewide party list vote. 

However, already in 2000, an opposition governor of Yaracuy state discovered that if you set up two different parties that are in alliance and have one of the parties run only on the direct vote part of the ballot and the other only on the proportional vote of the ballot, then this alliance can significantly increase its number of representatives, if these parties are likely to receive a larger proportion of the vote than any other party.[2] In effect, a way was found to game the system that favors a dominant party or alliance. In 2005 Chavez’s governing party, the MVR picked up this trick and created a new allied party, the UVE, which ran only on the proportional part of the ballot, while the MVR ran only on the direct part. Subsequently, the Supreme Court denied a constitutional challenge to the practice, saying that since the constitution does not specify the method for proportional representation, parties cannot be prohibited from forming this type of alliance.[3] In the end, the opposition boycotted the 2005 National Assembly election and the issue became moot, since Chavez’s supporters won 100% of the National Assembly representatives. 

In 2009 the National Assembly passed a new electoral suffrage law, which eliminated the provision that previously had caused direct representatives to count against the proportional representatives a party could have won.[4] In short, the direct vote and the proportional vote would be counted separately and the winning candidates adjudicated separately. This made the trick of running two allied parties unnecessary. Also, the new law lowered the number of proportional representatives from 40% of the National Assembly to 30%. As a result, proportional representation in the National Assembly was reduced significantly and now mainly guarantees that an opposition party that does not win candidates via the direct representative vote, may at least win a few proportional representatives. 

In the case of the Sept 26 vote, if it were not for the proportional part of the ballot, the opposition would have won 33% of the Assembly, instead of 39%. However, if the old electoral suffrage law had been in effect on Sept. 26, the opposition would have won 45% of the seats, 6 percentage points or 10 seats more. Given that this would not have changed the PSUV’s absolute majority in the Assembly, this would not have made a significant difference. 

Perhaps more importantly, though, is the implication that Venezuela’s electoral system is somehow “rigged” against the opposition. The fact is, Venezuela’s legislature (even before the 1999 constitution) has always slightly over-represented rural areas, so as to ensure that these areas would not be completely dominated by the more populous urban interests. It just happens to be the case that Chavez is far more popular in rural electoral districts than in urban ones. It is perfectly legitimate to debate whether such an overrepresentation is wrong, but one must keep in mind that this is not an invention of the Chavez government. 

Also, it is quite possible that if party A has particularly many voters in a few districts and party B has its voters more evenly divided throughout the country, but always outnumbering its rival party, then B will end up winning far more districts than A, even though their national level of support is more or less the same. For example, this is what happens quite often in Britain, where the Labour Party won 55% of the seats in 2005 with only 37% of the vote. In such a system it is even theoretically possible to have a minority of the popular vote and still win a majority of the seats. 

As for the accusation that electoral districts have been changed to give the PSUV more votes, even opposition supporters argue that these changes have been minimal.[5] Certainly they have not come even close to the gerrymandering seen in some congressional districts in the U.S.[6] 

Unfair Media Advantage? 

Another common accusation against the Chavez government has been that it has an unfair media advantage because the government controls more and more media outlets. Indeed, many new state-run or state-funded media outlets have been created in the past few years, such as Telesur, National Assembly TV (ANTV), Avila TV, Vive, and Tves. However, even combined, their audience share does not come close to that of the private TV stations. For example, in the battle for news and politics viewers, the private hard-line opposition-oriented Globovision usually reaches twice the audience share as the state-run VTV during prime time.[7] 

Also, judging from the persistent slew of insults and vitriol that Teodoro Petkoff and Marta Colomina (perhaps the two most prominent opposition commentators, in print and in radio, respectively), among many others, continue to launch against Chavez every day, it would seem that none of the recent high-profile corruption accusations against opposition-oriented business people had an effect on freedom of speech in Venezuela. 

The Power of the National Assembly 

It should thus come as no surprise that in a year in which the government was facing multiple crises (economic, electric, crime, and mismanagement of state food distribution) that the oppositional media would be able to run with these issues and make important inroads into Chavez’s popularity. Polls in early 2010 showed Chavez’s popularity dropping from a high of nearly 70% in May, 2008,[8] to perhaps just under 50% in early 2010. However, as the economy gradually recovered in the in mid 2010, Chavez’s popularity recovered too. Another reason for this increase in popularity was that Chavez went into full campaign mode and started inaugurating new industrial centers, health centers, and new social programs (such as a new credit card called, “Buen Vivir” – good living). 

The reason that Chavez made such an all-out effort is that Venezuela’s National Assembly is more important and powerful than most people realize, since most see in Venezuela a very presidentialist political system. The fact is, though, Venezuela’s National Assembly is arguably more powerful than the U.S. Congress. Not only does the President not have the right to veto legislation, but the AN appoints all members to three of the other four branches of government: the Supreme Court, the Attorney General, the Comptroller General, the Human Rights Ombudsperson, and the National Electoral Council. Also, the AN has the power to dismiss Ministers and the Vice-President. 

To complicate matters further, many laws (laws that set the framework for state institutions and for other laws, so-called “organic” laws) require a two-thirds majority, including many of the appointments to the other branches of government. This means that losing a two-thirds majority in the AN will cause a serious problem for the Chavez government, since it either cannot pass organic laws and make key appointments, or it will have to negotiate with the opposition. The more likely result, though, will be paralysis in such cases, which is what happened frequently during the 2000-2005 legislative period, when opposition and Chavista forces were nearly evenly matched in the AN. 

Castro-Communism Versus Fascist Capitalism 

The September 26 election cements the comeback of the opposition and reflects a temporary weakening of the Chavez government. Following a failed coup (2002), an oil industry shutdown (2003), and the boycott of the last AN elections (2005), the opposition is gradually reintegrating itself into Venezuelan political life, with its participation in the 2006 presidential election, in the 2008 regional election, and in this AN election. Also, with the formation of a new unified alliance (the MUD), the opposition appears to be more united than in the past. However, it still has to overcome some key obstacles if it is to become more effective in combating Chavez. For one, it would have to abstain from accepting money from foreign sources. According to a recent report opposition-affiliated groups have received tens of millions of dollars in the past year.[9] 

Second, the opposition would have to become more democratic by holding primary elections for its candidates as well as elections for its party leaders. For the recent AN election the opposition held primaries in only 18% of the electoral districts, while the PSUV held primaries in all electoral districts. 

As long as the Bolivarian Revolution is beginning to show signs of wearing out (such as in poorly executed social programs) and difficulties in overcoming key problems of the past year (particularly the economic crisis and crime), the opposition will have it easier. Still, in Venezuela’s barrios and in the countryside people continue to feel loyalty to their “Commandante” Chavez. The land reform, the communal councils that give citizens more power in their communities, and the many social programs are highly valued in these sectors. Although many are frustrated that many day-to-day problems remain unresolved, by and large they do not turn to the opposition, which still largely consists of the country’s tired old elite. They simply do not believe the opposition when it claims that Chavez is taking the country towards “Castro-Communism.” On the other hand, it is doubtful that they believe Chavez’s warning that the opposition represents capitalist fascism. 

In other words, Venezuela is a country in which politics is extremely polarized but in which the population is not. According to opinion surveys a little over a third of the population consists of die-hard Chavez supporters and a little under a third consists of die-hard Chavez opponents. The third third tends to be undecided and is often considered to consist of “ni-nis” (neither with Chavez nor against Chavez). This is the part of the population that Chavez and the opposition must try to win over. 

One party has now finally tried to capitalize on this segment of the population by rejecting both Chavez and the opposition. This party, the PPT (Fatherland for All), which for a long time supported Chavez, split from the pro-Chavez coalition earlier this year and attempted, with the help of the popular governor of Lara state, Henri Falcón, to constitute a third force in the country. In a surprise to many analysts, this effort appears to have ended in failure now, since the PPT picked up only two AN representatives and none in Lara. Apparently the PPT took votes mostly from the opposition, which would suggest that voter loyalty to Chavez is stronger than to the opposition. In effect, it seems that the public’s non-polarization still does not carry over to the political sphere, especially since the winner-take-all voting system makes it more difficult for third parties. 


Despite the relatively equal vote count for the two remaining sides, the opposition is now claiming that this is the beginning of the end of Chavez. Indeed, this would seem plausible if one considers that Chavez enjoyed a high point of popularity in 2006, shortly after his reelection with 63% of the vote. On the other hand, Chavez has been declared politically dead before only to reemerge stronger, such as after 2002/2003, after the coup attempt and the oil industry shutdown. Much can still happen in the next two years until the next presidential election in 2012, for which Chavez has already announced his candidacy. 

Chavez’s main program for the time until the next election is to continue the effort to establish “21st century socialism” in Venezuela. Exactly what this means is still not entirely clear, but there are a few indications. Towards the top of the agenda is a new labor law, which could democratize not only state-owned enterprises, but private enterprises too, via workers’ councils. Also, the role of communal councils is to be strengthened, particularly on the citywide and perhaps even statewide and national levels. With regard to the economy the government intends to expand its industrial planning effort and to support strategic private industries so that the country becomes less dependent on oil export earnings. 

These efforts, however, will be complicated due to the PSUV’s loss of its two-thirds majority in the AN. The real danger, though, is that Chavez and his supporters will interpret their 59% AN majority as an undisputed triumph and that they will forget, as a result, that barely 50% of Venezuelans voted for the PSUV. The governing party might thereby fail to reflect on the reasons for this rather narrow victory and miss a crucial opportunity to address these reasons. 

Many in Venezuela, both in the opposition and in the more moderate wing of the PSUV are trying to convince Chavez that the reason for the narrow loss is due to his too radical approach and that he needs to “slow down” and “moderate”. There is little indication, though, that this is the reason Chavez’s popularity has suffered in the past year. 

Rather, the reasons are to be found with basic problems, such as unemployment, insecurity, and poor government services. This is what most surveys and casual conversations in the barrios indicate. Also, given that most Venezuelans (especially the poor) have so far reacted positively to Chavez’s larger program of deepening the democratization of the economy, of the media, and of the polity, there is every reason to believe that they will continue to support him if he follows this program. If Chavez and his supporters decisively address the basic issues as well as the strategic programmatic ones, then[10] Chavez has an excellent chance of being reelected in 2012 and thereby reversing the opposition’s recent comeback. 


[1] For example, if a state has 10 direct representatives and 3 party list representatives and party A wins 6 of the direct representatives and 60% of the party list vote, then it would get no party list candidates for that state because its direct representatives count against the 2 party list representatives it could have in the proportional vote. The 3 party list representatives would then go to the next party that did not win a sufficient number of direct representatives to fill its quota of proportional representatives.

[2] The reason for this is that if one of those parties wins a representative on the direct portion of the ballot, there are no representatives on the proportional part of the ballot that it could lose due to this win. Instead, the proportional representatives of the allied party get all of the seats that they are due to receive since they have no direct candidates.

[3] See: “Venezuela’s Supreme Court Rejects Challenge to December Vote” by Gregory Wilpert, October 29, 2005 in Venezuelanalysis.com (http://venezuelanalysis.com/news/1441)

[4] See: “Venezuela Passes New Electoral Law,” by Tamara Pearson, August 3, 2009 in Venezuelanalysis.com (http://venezuelanalysis.com/news/4681)

[5] For example, the opposition blogger Francisco Toro of Caracas Chronicles wrote back in February 2010, “To my mind, what’s interesting is that CNE wasn’t really as aggressive as they might have been. If they’d really put their minds to it – if, say, they’d carved up crazy circuits that cross state lines or split parroquias in two – they could’ve done much better…by which I mean much, much worse.” (http://www.caracaschronicles.com/node/2302)

[6] See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gerrymandering

[7] In March, 2010, at 9pm, Globovisión had 1.29 audience share and VTV had 0.68. See: http://profanoymundano.obolog.com/rating-venezuela-ultimas-mediciones-increible-gana-televen-532802

[8] “Chávez Approval Rating 68.8%, Recent Venezuelan Poll Shows,” by James Suggett, May 13, 2008, Venezuelanalysis.com (http://venezuelanalysis.com/news/3438)

[9] See: “U.S. Interference in Venezuelan Elections,” by Eva Golinger, September 10, 2010 (http://www.chavezcode.com/2010/09/us-interference-in-venezuelan-elections.html)