Venezuelans headed to the polls yesterday for the first legislative election since Hugo Chavez's death in 2013. The results indicate that, for the first time since 2000, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) and its predecessor will no longer control the National Assembly.
Late Sunday night, it was reported that the opposition MUD alliance had won 99 of the legislature's 167 seats, reducing the PSUV to 46 seats. The MUD includes a range of opposition parties with ideologies from across the political spectrum. Polling had consistently shown majority support for the MUD, but Venezuela's electoral system makes predictions of seat counts somewhat difficult.
The PSUV will still control the presidency and other branches of government. President Nicolás Maduro accepted the official results, telling his supporters, “We've lost a battle, but the fight to build socialism and a new society is just beginning.”
17 years of Chavismo
Chavez was first elected president in 1998, having spent two years in prison for leading a coup attempt against the government of Carlos Perez in 1992. He was deposed for 48 hours in 2002 in a coup reported to have had U.S. approval.
Chavez instituted a nationalization program in oil, electricity, finance and other sectors, in part as a means of poverty reduction. Bolivarian missions, social programs that improved access to food, health care and education, and new mechanisms of participatory democracy, also helped form the "Bolivarian process": an attempt to transition to socialism, drawing inspiration from the ideas of the 19th-century independence leader Simón Bolívar.
Chavez was the first in a number of leaders that oversaw the “Pink Tide,” a turn towards social democracy in Latin America, as well as unprecedented regional integration.
"When Chavez came to power in 1998 he had goals of really shaking things up in Venezuela as well as the global system,” said Jennifer McCoy, director of the Global Studies Institute at Georgia State University, in a phone interview with Ricochet. “At the national level, he really wanted to redistribute resources, particularly oil resources, so that they would better reach the poor.”
"He espoused the idea of a deeper democracy,” McCoy added. “And at the global level he wanted to shake up what he saw as the unipolar world dominated by the United States.”
President Maduro, who succeeded Chavez following his death, has been challenged by growing economic problems, particularly declining revenues in the face of low oil prices.
High stakes election
Venezuela had been criticized for not allowing more extensive international observation of the election. To discuss the voting process, Ricochet spoke with Gabriel Hetland, a political sociologist with the University at Albany, SUNY Department of Latin American, Caribbean and Latino Studies. Hetland was part of the accompaniment mission organized by the CNE, Venezuela's election authority, and was on his way to a citizens’ audit on Margarita Island in the state of Nueva Esparta when Ricochet reached him.
“I don't have any doubts about the security of the technical aspect of the voting process," Hetland said. "Basically, we can't just demand what we want to see, we are restricted [from] a view of everything, but within that restriction we have quite a bit of freedom to talk to whoever we want during the election, to move around any of the mesas de votación [voting booths].”
McCoy echoed Hetland's assessment of the voting system. “They have a very automated system. It is one of the most advanced systems in the world in terms of automating all aspects.… Because it's automated it is auditable and the opposition parties have participated in audits. The voting machines themselves have not been shown to be inaccurate. In other words, the audits have shown them to be accurate. And so I expect that the vote count will be accurate.”
McCoy, however, did note difficulties that opposition parties have in accessing media, as well as reports of its candidates being disqualified and other irregularities. "It is not a level playing field," she said.
Hetland expressed that he believes the fear of foreign influence is legitimate.
"I think Venezuela and other countries in Latin America have a very justifiable fear of foreign intervention based on hundreds of years of really bloody and merciless intervention, much of it led by the U.S. government,” Hetland said. Venezuelan law bars foreign organizations from participating as electoral observers.
"I think the threat of foreign influence is very real,” Susan Spronk told Ricochet in a phone interview. Spronk is a professor with the University of Ottawa's School of International Development and Global Studies who has studied the impact of neoliberalism in Latin America.
Diosdado Cabello, president of Venezuela's National Assembly, has previously alleged Canadian involvement in a coup plot. English- and Spanish-language emails to the PSUV seeking comment were not returned for publication time.
The framing of events in Venezuela by international media has often been contentious. Venezuela's opposition supporters are drawn mostly from the middle and upper classes, and in 2014, Mark Weisbrot described the protests then gripping the country as a "revolt of the well-off" that was mostly limited to affluent areas.
Don Kingsbury, a political scientist at the University of Toronto specializing in Latin America, recalled his own impressions of the protests from a visit to Venezuela.
"The poor people who lived, for example, in the city of Caracas, [were] opposed to the protests. The middle class saw it as an inconvenience, or depending on how it was framed, would support aspects of it. The largely affluent opposition had a very politicized support for it,” Kingsbury said.
Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the United Nations have detailed human rights abuses by the government, though some of their reports have also been accused of having anti-government bias that distorts or ignores evidence. One Human Rights Watch report, for example, was disparaged by a group of academic experts on Latin America as a "politically motivated essay.” HRW's response asserted that the academics' allegations did not “stand up to scrutiny."
An end to Chavismo?
Kingsbury explained that much of the opposition has emphasized its intention to "run the programs better,” suggesting the Bolivarian process won't completely end even with a change in government. Kingsbury also noted that the opposition may now also push for a recall referendum in order to remove Maduro, as the constitution allows.
Election results alone, however, won't be enough to reverse the changes that have been made in Venezuela.
"What you'd likely see is a return to market-oriented public-private partnerships, that sort of thing. At this point, outright privatizations [are] actually barred by the constitution."