After almost two months of escalating turmoil, Venezuela’s unpopular leftist President Nicolas Maduro ordered the electoral authority (“CNE”) yesterday to announce (1) the election of members of a constituent congress to rewrite the constitution by the end of July and (2) regional elections for December 10th, 2017.
What is behind such announcement? Below, I explain why and how this new move may consolidate autocratic rule in the Latin American country. The context of the crisis relates to a popular unrest that started after the Supreme Court nullified the opposition-led congress, last March, 29th , provoking extremely disproportionate repression from the regime and taking the lives of –at least- 55 protesters.
1. The proposed constituent congress will not come from competitive elections. Since 80% of Venezuelans reject the socialist regime and want a change, the government engineered a mechanism to win these elections without the support of most voters. According to their rules, universal direct suffrage to elect “most” members is not allowed. The socialist government is establishing two ways to get the majority needed to create a constitution that keeps them in power indefinitely.
First, those few districts where the government could win will have more representatives. This disproportional method means that if the congressional elections that the opposition won in 2015 were held under such conditions, the ruling party (“PSUV”) would have obtained 12 seats and the opposition (“MUD”) 10 seats in the state of Miranda, although only 36% of the population voted for PSUV and 62% supported MUD.
The second tactic is the establishment of sectoral elections that would resemble the soviets -from the Soviet Union- or the corporate State -under Mussolini’s fascism. By these means, unions, local networks (like the so-called communal councils) and professional associations controlled by the regime would elect candidates of a congress that is expected to have 540 members.
In sum, this is much more than gerrymandering and would eliminate Venezuela’s democratic and constitutional system of popular majority (one person, one vote) and establish a mechanism whereby the regime could control any outcome and win most elections, one way or another, irrespective of its popularity.
2. Towards A de facto One Party State. This constituent congress will not allow the participation of political parties. It also forbids current opposition leaders holding public office to be elected as members of this body. What real democracy on earth disqualifies political parties from participating in elections?
3. The announcement of regional gubernatorial elections is a tactic to deceive the opposition and the international community. According to the constitution, this electoral process had to be held last year. The regime may want to kill several birds with one stone. (1) At the level of the local and international political discourse, it allows the regime –and its defenders- to argue that the country will celebrate such elections this year –therefore, suffocating the pressure it was put under.
(2) A common pattern in modern autocracies is to mimic democracy by using liberal democratic institutions –competitive elections, branches of power, etc.- and exploiting elite co-optation to remain in power. Regional elections may represent a “candy” for some sectors within the opposition, so that they endorse the constituent congress in exchange of their chance to run for office. In the past, this electoral tactic has helped the regime to divide dissidents by obtaining the support of some while disqualifying others, making the opposition’s capacity to achieve sustained cohesion a major challenge.
(3) However, if the constituent congress is set up, it would have the power to not only take current opposition-led congress out of the way once for all, it can also suspend the regional elections at some point in time. Moreover, based on the electoral precedent set by the constituent congress, universal direct suffrage may not be guaranteed here either.
4. The main goal is to avoid a presidential election and hold onto power beyond 2018. It is expected that the new constitution –if passed- would set provisions whereby the ruling elite could have legal –yet undemocratic- grounds to remain in office indefinitely while weakening political parties and undermining collective action mechanisms from civil society, as a way to mitigate potential unrest in the future.
Claudio J. Sandoval (Twitter / Linkedin / Instagram: @Claudiopedia), lawyer and political analyst.