What now? Venezuela’s Post-Electoral Challenges

Two well-known scholars on Venezuela give their analysis of the post-election scenario and what the challenges will be for the Bolivarian Revolution in the coming years.


Mortality, Electoral Mandates, and Revolution

By: Daniel Hellinger

To read the mainstream Western press, one would think that Hugo Chávez won the 7 October election because he simply bought votes. Well, programmes delivering housing, cheap food and health care can indeed “buy” a lot of votes. Chávez won because more Venezuelans believed their needs would be taken into account by the incumbent than by Henrique Capriles. 

Hugo Chávez faces two major challenges as he heads into a new six-year term. He must prepare for a transition of leadership, and he must institutionalise democratic procedures for appropriation and distribution of oil rents. These two tasks stand in a symbiotic relationship to one another. Neither will be easy to achieve, but both are essential to the consolidation of a more ambitious project to achieve “21st-century socialism”.

Chávez’ most radical supporters read into the vote a mandate to replace representative democracy with the communal state, i.e., to “re-engineer” the territorial state and diminish radically, if not abolish altogether, state and municipal authorities.  The “communes” are councils composed of delegates from the grassroots communal councils. If built on the basis of genuinely democratic and transparent social organisations, the communes can indeed be a major step toward socialism. But should they replace states and municipalities?  Is that what Venezuelans want?

Most of the country’s citizens, even with their deep mistrust of parties and politicians, are not prepared to abandon entirely institutions identified with pluralist democracy. While the opposition has lost another electoral round, by competing for power within the bounds of institutions created by the 1999 constitution it has reinforced that document. The hemispheric consensus that has permitted the founding of CELAC and UNASUR, as well as Venezuela’s entry into Mercosur, includes a degree of consensus for parliamentary norms, and so a constraint on a radical overhaul of state structures.

Venezuela remains a petrostate. In the unlikely event that it will develop a sustainable non-oil economy in the near future, the country requires strong institutions to regulate and oversee the country’s relations with foreign investors, key markets, and fellow oil exporting states. Among other things this means a strong oil ministry independent of PDVSA (the state oil company) and a national legislature capable of reviewing and passing judgment on oil policies – setting taxes and royalties, examining joint venture agreements, examining the terms of loans to the industry, setting production levels — that properly belong to the nation as owner of national resources. 

What the country needs, then, is an effective synthesis of the principles underlying participatory democracy and representative democracy. This is Chávez’s last chance to use his charismatic authority to advance that goal. The president already has lost a major opportunity to strengthen the internal democratic structures of his party, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), by insisting on a clean and transparent process for selecting candidates for the state elections in December and municipal elections in April.

The imperative for institutionalising internal democracy in the PSUV is magnified by the number of potential successors to Chávez, a list that includes moderates and radicals, former military officers and labour leaders, politicians with a popular touch and others likely to have support from business sectors that have benefitted from stage patronage – the “Bolibourgeoisie.”  It is not just a matter of holding primaries, but reducing the influence of patronage and corruption in party ranks.

Throughout his thirteen years as president, Chávez has wavered between portraying himself as the indispensable voice of the “people” and more modestly emphasising the responsibility of militants in the PSUV to carry out the task of building a participatory, solidarity-based social order.  Even if he is truly cancer-free at this moment, the prospect of his mortality should raise in his own mind the prospect that the Bolivarian Revolution too may be mortal.


Venezuela: what now?

By: Julia Buxton

In the closing days of the presidential race, the contest between Chávez and Capriles was depicted in the media as tightly fought – an ever narrowing gap between incumbent and challenger. This was not what the polls were saying. After Capriles was unveiled as the opposition candidate in February, all surveys consistently showed Chávez with a 10-15% advantage over his rival. Assumptions of inevitability were blown off course in the closing weeks of the race after a Consultores 21 survey bucked the trend and reported that Capriles had overtaken Chávez in popular voting intentions.

Significant domestic and international media attention was given to this one survey, even though it was produced by a historically unreliable firm and contradicted all other poll findings. Suddenly the future of Chávez and the Bolivarian Revolution was under threat. It was a huge boost for Capriles, a candidate whose name was always preceded by adjectives conveying his vitality. But the variously ‘youthful’ and ‘energetic’ opposition candidate was misled. In seeking to create a matrix of opinion favourable to a Capriles victory, the Consultores 21 poll may have had the reverse effect. Wavering chavistas and non- committed voters were galvanised to defend the Chávez government, just as ardently as Capriles supporters were mobilised to remove it. The end result was a stunningly high participation rate of 81%, and a broad-based expression of confidence in democratic processes and the election system. And of course the polls were right. Capriles trailed Chávez by 10% when the votes were counted. Nonetheless, Capriles put in a strong performance, boosting the opposition share of the vote to 44%.

With victory under his belt, Chávez has pledged to deepen 21st-Century Socialism over his next six-year term. As outlined by the president, this is to be achieved by improving the quality of the government’s package of social policy measures – the Missions, while expanding the reach and role of the community councils, of which there are currently around 30,000. Consolidation in these two areas will define 21st-Century Socialism as a model of social and economic empowerment configured around localised, participatory governance and decision-making. Failure to institutionalise these initiatives will leave Venezuela labouring with a complex and bureaucratic dualism: missions paralleling ministries, community councils sitting uncomfortably alongside elected mayors, governors and national assembly members.

The Missions and the new ‘geometry of power’ represented by the community councils are key factors in accounting for the on-going success and popularity of Chávez. They have reduced marginalisation and inequality in a country that was infamous (and unstable) in the early 1990s because of searing poverty amid oil ‘wealth’, and profound anti-party sentiment within a ‘consolidated’ democratic system. The Missions initially met with derision from donors and a development community enamoured of more palatable (and infinitely less radical) anti-poverty strategies such as the conditional cash transfer (CCT) programs of Brazil, Mexico and Peru. But ten years on, there is greater appreciation of the political dimensions of economic empowerment and vice versa, of the necessity of holistic provision of basic social services that extends across families and communities and which does not stop with a child’s graduation from primary school. But the trajectory of poverty reduction and increased participation following from the Missions and Community Councils can only be sustained with better, more transparent resource governance and improvements in technical and policy-making capacity. Chávez’s victory speech acknowledged that there is much to be done.

Delivering on improvements will be test of the administration now that Democratic Unity (Mesa de la Unidad Democrática, MUD) under Capriles has dragged itself towards the centre ground. The strong showing by Capriles can in large part be attributed to his pledge to preserve the Missions – his defeat due to the fact he failed to fully convince a majority of beneficiaries that he would preserve the gains that they have made under Chávez. But if retained as leader of the MUD he will have the time to develop his critique of the current inadequacies of the Missions. The risk for the chavistas is that the forward march of the Bolivarian revolution could be halted by the opposition if the improvements promised by Chávez are not prioritised or realised by the government over this next term.