DA! and NO!

Russian voters gave a huge “DA!” to Putin in legislative elections that were a de-facto referendum on extending Putin’s “national leader” status beyond the scheduled expiration of his presidential tenure next spring.

Meanwhile, Venezuelan voters narrowly gave a “NO!” to the referendum by Chávez to extend his own tenure, as well as his powers and the role of the state in the economy.

I am unsurprised by the Russian result. Some months ago I said Putin’s party would win two thirds to three fourths of the seats, despite polls at the time that said 47% of the vote. It would appear that United Russia will have right around 70% of the seats. Stay tuned as to whether this is a step towards having the power to amend the constitution and abolish the term limit, or whether he will find other ways to exercise the dominance that he will claim a mandate for.

I am surprised by the Venezuela result. Pleasantly so. A 51-49 YES would have been a terrible outcome. A 51-49 NO could be salutary.

A couple of paragraphs from this morning’s LA Times well sum up what Venezuela’s voters turned down:

Chavez’s goal is authoritarian in nature, said Agustin Blanco Munoz, a researcher at Central University of Venezuela who wrote a biography based partially on jailhouse interviews he conducted after Chavez was imprisoned for leading the unsuccessful 1992 coup attempt.

“His model isn’t communism or socialism. It’s a varnish, a cover for a personalist system that exalts Chavez above all else as the caudillo, the new messiah, not the collective society,” Blanco Munoz said.

On the Russian vote, it is interesting that the other parties on the ballot listed the top three candidates on their national lists, whereas United Russia listed only Putin. The Times reported that many voters appeared unaware that it was a legislative election. Clearly, that was Putin’s intent, by abolishing the nominal tier of the former electoral system, and by creating the mass movement demanding him to stay on. Putin continues to deny he intends a third term. Will he be convinced otherwise, by the great democratic outpouring? ((Please be sure your irony detector is appropriately calibrated.))

Turnout was only around 55% in Venezuela, meaning only around 28% actually voted no. But good enough, for now, anyway. Russia’s turnout was around 60%, so only about 38% of the eligible electorate has endorsed this overwhelming majority. But good enough.

0 thoughts on “DA! and NO!

  1. One gets the clear impression that Putin will use said outpouring as an excuse to increase his power.

    Via CNN:

    “I headed United Russia ticket, and, of course, it’s a sign of public trust,” Putin said in televised comments, adding that victory would let the United Russia party cement its power base in the Duma.

    The headline uses the word “mandate” but it is unclear to me that he used that word (or, at least, the appropriate Russian version).


  2. One lesson coming from both votes is about the design of our own (US) institutions. The constitution is thankfully difficult to amend. And when amended, the direction has generally been against tyranny. Venezuela came to the brink last weekend. Russia is basically past it, though the amendment hasn’t happened yet.

    If I were Yeltsin, I’d have written the electoral rules into the constitution along with the provisions on how to amend it. We’re about to see whether axing the nominal tier was just a tactical step toward abolishing term limits. (Though your point about doing so to confuse legislative elections with generalized referenda on power is an interesting one.)

    Deep federalism has virtues. It confines tyranny to tight geographical units.

    No, that opinion is not inconsistent with my preferences for PR and a national popular vote. PR probably would increase the number of veto points in the House. And the Electoral College has no clear purpose from an institutional design perspective; it’s an accident of history. A national popular vote, in fact, would make it harder for nefarious Secretaries of State in battlegrounds to steal presidential elections because the relevant margin would be the nationwide one.


  3. I have noticed that “mandate” in US politics/ law retains its original Latinate sense of “binding legal command” (eg, “unfunded mandates”, California et al renaming writs of mandamus “writs of mandate”), whereas in UK/ Australia its meaning has, ah, evolved to approximate something like “blank che[que] for the governing party to de-legitimise any political opposition to its changing the laws.”

    As for numbers of veto points, my concern is that – howsoever numerous – they be distributed roughly equally, or if unequally, at least in proportion to the intensity of the issue at stake.

    That’s the reason I dislike the US Senate filibuster as it currently stands. Boiling away the temporary partisan politics, the strongest defence is that constitutional/ small-R republican democracy doesn’t equate to immediate, 50% + 1 majority rule but rather, should factor in the intensity of the minority’s opposition.

    Up to a point, Lord Reid, but…

    (a) Senators themselves are elected by a very majoritarian process (tempered only by staggered terms and rural vote-weighting, but neither does much to correct the nationwide under-representation of the most under-represented minorities: ie, those that have a permanent lock on the Senate also occasionally win the House and/or Electoral College)

    (b) there is no necessary correlation between the impact of a particular new Bill on several thousand or million citizens, and the bladder strength and/or insomnia of a Senator elected by those citizens.


  4. For a visceral, normative, open-nerve-ending view inside Russian politics look no further than The Exile. Warning – this site may scare your loved ones. (Having recently visited Moscow I witnessed how Putin uses television as his queen of battle. Talented minds are forced to express themselves in print and web forums. I hope the .ru domain remains a formidable force for free expression)



  5. By the final vote counts in Venezuela, Chavez lost nearly 3 million votes in comparison to last year’s presidential elections…meaning one of two things: 1)even his support base couldn’t stomach a lifetime of his leadership or 2) the numbers in the 2006 elections were grossly manipulated.
    In any case, this result will hopefully stimulate the opposition to reorganize itself as an effective political force. 5 years left on the current mandate is a long time however…


  6. Jack, I don’t consider difficulty of amending the US constitution to be a good thing at this point in history. Because it’s so difficult to update the constitution to keep up with the times, the polity has been pressed into somewhat flexible interpretations of the constitution (to be charitable). I’m happy with the outcome of many such decisions, for example I think there should be a constitutional right to privacy. But I worry that this flexibility can erode the power of the constitution, making it easier to ignore or work around its protections. Thankfully we haven’t any political leader who’s interested in doing so…

    Obviously a constitution that is too easily amended is a problem too. One would expect there to be some sort of happy middle point. I’m sure this has been studied before, but cursory Googling turns up little in the way of international comparison–any suggested reading?


  7. I suppose the existence of a middle ground is contingent on too many factors to list, not least problematic of which being a standard for normative judgment.

    A friend of mine once spoke about a mentor who variously woke up on Jeffersonian and Madisonian sides of the bed. I can’t remember who, and maybe (s)he even lifted the quotation, but it seems appropriate here.


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