Venezuela Election, Victory or Setback for Chavez?

Sociologist, freelance journalist, and Venezuelanalysis.com editor Gregory Wilpert discusses the results of last Sunday's National Assembly elections with the Real News Network.

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. On Sunday, the Venezuelan people elected a new National Assembly. The Socialist Party led by President Hugo Chávez and the opposition party under the banner of Democratic Unity more or less split the vote, with a slight 1 percent advantage to the Socialist Party. On the other hand, the seats divided not fifty-fifty: 97 seats for the Socialist Party and 65 seats for the opposition. Now joining us from New York to make sense of all of this and having just returned a couple of days ago from Venezuela is Gregory Wilpert. Gregory is a founder of Venezuelanalysis. He works now with the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation in Venezuela and is the author of the book Changing Venezuela by Taking Power. Thanks for joining us, Gregory.


JAY: So why such a disproportionate allocation of seats?

WILPERT: Basically it’s because Venezuela has a system where people elect a district representative to the National Assembly. That is, anybody in their district who has more than 50 percent of the vote, or actually even just a simple majority of the vote, gets to represent that particular district. Unfortunately for the opposition, most of their support is based in large metropolitan areas, where the districts tend to be geographically smaller but much higher density. They tend to get something like 80 percent of the vote and only one representative, whereas in the more pro-Chávez areas, which are distributed throughout the country, they get one party number of votes but [inaudible] smaller margin. And so, again, it’s very possible, even, that you have a majority of representatives from one party.

JAY: In some of the news reports, they’ve called—they say this is also the product of what they call gerrymandering, which we see in the United States as well, where districts are divided in a way that are advantageous, usually, to the party in power. Now, some of the reports have said this is traditional in Venezuela. There’s a lot of rural districts that actually have less people with the same number of representatives. They also say it’s gotten a little worse, they say, since the new Chávez-supported Constitution. Is there any truth to this?

WILPERT: It’s certainly true that it’s traditional, because the rural areas are supposed to be overrepresented, in a sense, to give them more weight against the urban areas. However, the gerrymandering is actually playing a very small role. There is a slight bit of gerrymandering, but even the opposition admits that’s not the main reason that they don’t have as many representatives.

JAY: Okay. So let’s talk about, then, what really happened. The vote was essentially split. The Socialist Party led by Chávez gets about 48, and 47 and something to the opposition. Now, you know, after this many years in power, you can, I guess, look at it both ways: a win for Chávez—in spite of some difficult economic conditions, he still gets this much vote; or the other way, especially among some of the barrios and poor, where the opposition did better than expected. So is this a win or a lose for Chávez?

WILPERT: Well, it is a win, just like you said. And considering that he’s been in office for 12 years and that Venezuela has gone through two very bad years just recently with an economic crisis, an electricity crisis, a management crisis of the government where they found tens of thousands of tons of rotting food, and then a new crime wave, so the combination of all of these factors put together makes it quite amazing that Chávez is able to survive and get 50 percent of the vote. On the other hand, it is certainly disappointing for Chávez’s supporters, because they were hoping to get two-thirds of the National Assembly and to get significantly more than 50 percent of the popular vote. And so in that sense it’s a defeat.

JAY: Why does the National Assembly matter so much? I mean, how big a role does it play in the political life there?

WILPERT: Venezuela’s National Assembly is extremely important. Actually, one could say it’s more powerful than the US Congress, because, first of all, the president doesn’t have a veto right. Then, also, the National Assembly gets to appoint all the other branches of government except for the executive, such as the justices of the Supreme Court, the attorney general, the comptroller general, and also the National Electoral Council, which organizes the elections. So all of that put together makes it quite important and quite dangerous for Chávez if the opposition would have gotten control over the National Assembly.

JAY: Well, to some extent they did, didn’t they? Like, he’s two or three seats short now of being able to control the appointment, so he’s going to at least have to get two or three members of the opposition to go with him or he’s going to be in some kind of impasse over some of these appointments.

WILPERT: Yes. Actually, since the country is politically still very polarized, it’s quite unlikely that the opposition or that Chávez’s party will collaborate on any of these appointments. And so for those cases where a two-thirds majority is needed, there will be an impasse, just as happened about eight years ago when the National Assembly was also divided.

JAY: Now, for people that don’t know the context here, during the last term of the National Assembly, the opposition essentially boycotted it, so the pro-Chávez forces in one way or the other controlled the entire National Assembly. So he’s going to be dealing with a very different deck of cards here.

WILPERT: Yes, compared to the last five years, definitely. But, on the other hand, it’s going to be similar to the five years before that, from 2000 to 2005, when the National Assembly was equally divided—almost exactly equally divided between pro- and anti-Chávez forces.

JAY: Now, there’s a debate going on now amongst pro-Chávez forces what to do between now and January 5 when they sign in the new National Assembly, ’cause until then he still does control the National Assembly—and including, if they wanted, they could give him special powers to enact laws without even going through the National Assembly. What’s being debated there about what should be done over the next three, four months or so?

WILPERT: Yeah, some National Assembly members of the current National Assembly have suggested that they could give Chávez an enabling law, which would allow him to pass laws by decree for a limited amount of time. It’s not clear whether that will happen. Enabling laws in the past have taken place three times, and in each case, Chávez actually had a hard time really taking good advantage of it. He’d ended up doing it, so—but it was always a struggle. He got in the laws in the last minute before it expired and ended up having to revise them afterwards. So I’m not so sure that they’re really going to do that, but it’s a definite possibility. The opposition, of course, is crying foul, saying that this would be an unfair—going against the will of the population.

JAY: Now, some of the critique’s coming from the left; it’s not all coming from the right or from the elite. And I guess one of the critiques is, why isn’t there more of a rainy day fund, I guess? You know, when oil was riding high, why wasn’t there more reserves established for this time when the crisis hits? And why isn’t Venezuela in better position for a recession?

WILPERT: Well, I think Chávez really bought into the idea of peak oil, that the oil was running out, and that the high price of oil that we had probably three years ago was going to stay for the indefinite future. And so they felt, you know, the price of oil and the revenues would just keep on going up, and they ended up spending just about everything that was coming in. So there was no rainy day fund, and this was really a problem. It was a miscalculation. So that caused an economic problem, and I think that brought along with it, then, also the crime wave.

JAY: Talk a bit about the crime wave. It probably was the biggest issue in the metropolitan centers, where the Socialist Party did not so well. Why isn’t there a more effective policy on crime?

WILPERT: I think there’s several reasons. One is that Chávez himself hasn’t taken that problem that seriously. He always assumed that crime would go down when the economy would be doing better, when there was less poverty, and that was proved to be a false assumption: poverty decreased, but crime did not decrease, and then with the economic recession it went up even more. So that’s an important reason. Another that Chávez has mentioned himself is that he doesn’t think that fighting crime with the police is the best way to solve the problem of insecurity, rather that it should be done with more unconventional means of better education, better incomes, and things like that. So I think that it’s just basically been a miscalculation and [inaudible]

JAY: Because in terms of the Millennium [Development] Goals and the objectives of reducing poverty and increasing literacy, Venezuela has actually done pretty well, which is a story that doesn’t get out very often.

WILPERT: Yes, Venezuela’s actually one of the few countries in the world that is almost certainly going to meet the Millennium Development Goals by 2015.

JAY: But, as you say, crime’s gone up, not down, over this last couple of years, partly as the recession hit. And I know when I was in Venezuela a few years ago, there was this joke that if you get held up by a robber in the streets, don’t yell, because a policeman might come. This idea of the corruption of the police force, how legitimate is that charge?

WILPERT: Yes, that’s an absolutely serious problem, and it’s one of the main reasons that they’ve been turning to this problem so late is that the police force itself is hopelessly corrupt, and you cannot fight crime with a corrupt police force. Only in the past two years has the government really recognized that the police force itself is a problem, and has proposed and has instituted now a new national police force which is supposed to replace the local police. But that’s a very long process, because it requires the retraining of police officers and the purging of the old police forces, and it’s a very long and complicated process that’s slated to take at least five years, and by which time, of course, Chávez could very well lose another election.

JAY: So, just finally, you know, you’ve been in Venezuela a tremendous amount. You lived there for years. Do you still see the social transformation taking place? Or is the Bolivarian process a little stalled?

WILPERT: Well, I think it’s certainly still taking place. I mean, the things that people often don’t hear about, for example, is that the communal councils is a very interesting experiment that the government is pushing through, democratizing local government, essentially; also, democratizing workplaces by turning over state-owned enterprises to the workforces; a number of different programs that are probably the main reason why Chávez remains so popular in Venezuela. And those policies are continuing, and they are being deepened, as far as I can tell, also, into the future. The real problem now seems to be more of what some people call the bread-and-butter issues of, like I said, state mismanagement and things like the economy and the crime.

JAY: Thanks very much for joining us, Greg.

WILPERT: Thank you.

JAY: Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

End of Transcript

DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

Gregory Wilpert is a sociologist, freelance journalist, editor of Venezuelanalysis.com, and author of the recently published book, Changing Venezuela by Taking Power.