Venezuela held elections to elect 165 representatives to the National Assembly in what many analysts characterized as an important run-up to presidential elections in 2012. According to the results released by Venezuela’s National Electoral Council (CNE), President Hugo Chavez’s Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) took 97 seats, while the opposition coalition (MUD) won 65, and the independent, left-leaning PPT obtained 3 seats. Experts inside and outside of Venezuela have varying analyses about the fairness of the new electoral lines the government drew up prior to the election, what the election results mean for Chavez’s ability to govern, and the strength of the opposition heading into presidential elections. However, there are several conclusions one can draw about electoral democracy in Venezuela without diving into the technical, political and ideological interpretation of the results, or by predicting the future.
First, participation in the electoral process is thriving. [The September 26] vote set a new record for legislative elections with over 66% of able voters taking part. Compare that to 56 % in 2000, which was the last time the opposition participated in legislative elections. Similarly, the U.S. only enjoyed 37% voter turnout in Congressional elections in 2006 and 2002. Elections – and the fairness, participation and transparency involved – are consistently used as the measuring stick for democracy. Voters in Venezuela, whether supporting or opposing the Socialist Party, obviously feel a stake in their country’s future, and demonstrate it by showing up at the ballot box. Venezuela should be commended for reaching its current levels of participation.
Second, despite fears and unwarranted accusations in the past, the credibility and transparency of Venezuela’s voting process is apparent. The opposition previously boycotted legislative assemblies (and democracy) in 2005, claiming that the electoral system could not be trusted and President Chavez and his colleagues would commit fraud. As subsequent votes showed, at least part of the reason for the boycott was because Chavez’s popularity at the time would lead to a major defeat. Over the last decade various elections have been monitored and certified by the Carter Center, the Organization of American States and other international bodies as free, fair, transparent and trustworthy. Again, this was the case over the weekend. Very minor disputes remain about the final numbers of the popular vote, but within just a few hours of the polls closing, all major political parties openly accepted the results. Venezuela’s voting system is first class and the opposition can no longer claim that electoral outcomes are the result of manipulating the vote count.
Third, once again President Chavez accepted the election results, which in this case could be considered a defeat. The stated goal of his political party was to obtain a super-majority in the legislature by winning two-thirds of the seats. It became apparent in the wee hours of Monday morning that PSUV had come up short. Chavez did not manipulate the vote, announce plans to dissolve the Congress or call on the CNE to alter the results. Chavez, as in past cases of electoral defeat, accepted the results. Such was the case in December of 2007, when his proposal for constitutional reform lost by a slim margin.
Fourth, the election results show that President Chavez still enjoys vast popular support, and is able to mobilize his electoral base. Despite a recession-plagued economy in stagnation, high crime rates, which the opposition has aggressively highlighted in the media, and the fact that Chavez has now been in power for 11 years, he was once again able to mobilize his base. The most up-to-date numbers indicate that PSUV slightly defeated a united opposition front by just under 100,000 votes in the popular vote – 5.45 to 5.33 million. President Obama and the Democratic Party – also facing a disgruntled electorate due to recession – would be pleased to share Chavez’s popularity, and perhaps his party’s election outcome, as November Congressional elections approach. Polls indicate that Chavez’s popularity, and subsequent support at the polls, are directly related to how Venezuelans perceive the current economic conditions of the country. PSUV and the opposition made Sunday’s election a referendum on Chavez’s rule. The result: despite tough economic times, over 50% of the voters supported Chavez’s party.
Finally, and most importantly, the campaigning for Sunday’s elections highlighted a fundamental change over the last decade in Venezuelan democracy: the inclusion of previously marginalized citizens in the democratic process. Many members of the opposition continue to focus on issues related to democracy and human rights – themes popular with their international audience, but that fail to resonate with Venezuela’s middle and lower classes. However, as a whole, the opposition focused on issues of real concern to the citizenry: economic difficulties, ineffective government, crime and corruption. Furthermore, some opposition politicians, such as Carlos Ocariz, the current mayor of Sucre municipality, have realized that providing education, health care and social safety nets – the core of Chavez’s social programs over the last decade – are issues essential to the majority of the electorate and will be in the future (Ocariz was not running in the election, but campaigned for his party). Rather than threatening to remove social programs, as the opposition has done in the past, they now try to appeal directly to those who benefit from them, vowing to make the services more efficient. Improved social programs, as well as promises of better governance, improved security and access to jobs, became the pitch of more nuanced opposition politicians.
Campaigning opposition politicians ventured into poor neighborhoods they have traditionally ignored. Whether they are genuinely concerned about their poorer constituents can be discussed elsewhere. The important takeaway is the following: At a time when nearly 70% of the electorate shows up for a Congressional vote, politicians on both sides of the aisle focused their campaign efforts on issues that poor and middle class Venezuelans (the majority of the society) see as their new found rights: equal access to quality healthcare, education and employment and security. Previously marginalized sectors of society now believe their vote matters and exercise their right to suffrage. It seems simple, but this has not always been the case in Venezuela. Hooray for democracy!
Collin Laverty is an MPIA candidate at UC – San Diego’s School of International Relations and Pacific Studies. He is also a member of the Center for Democracy in the Americas advisory board.