The revolution will end with… a midterm election?

If widely reported opinion polls prove accurate, the ruling Venezuelan Socialist Unity Party (PSUV) will be defeated today in congressional elections. The presidency is not on the ballot–not officially, anyway.

The expected opposition win would usher in a period of divided government, which is a relatively rare occurrence in presidential systems outside of the US. (I define divided government as a majority of seats for the president’s electoral opponents; a mere lack of a majority for the president’s electoral supporters is not “divided government”.) This result could bring a significant change to policy of President Nicolas Maduro, the successor to the “revolutionary” Hugo Chavez, who was first elected in 1998 and died in 2013. Or it could simply bring in period of instability and extra-institutional politics, depending on how the chavistas respond, as well as how accommodating the newly victorious congressional majority is.

Chavez won presidential elections in 1998, 2000 (early, under new constitution), 2006, and 2012. Maduro won his own mandate in 2013. The chavistas have won legislative elections in 2000, 2005, and 2010.* Note the electoral cycle under the 1999 chavista constitution: Six years for president (not counting the early election following Chavez’s death), five years for congress.

With this cycle, which was a new feature of the 1999 constitution,** it was almost inevitable that at some point there would be a midterm election in which voters would register discontent, resulting in the “revolutionary” executive losing its majority or even facing divided government. This type of electoral cycle makes such outcomes likely, as I said in a paper published in the American Political Science Review in 1995–about a year after Chavez was released from prison. Didn’t he read it?***

Maduro’s term (which is to fill out the remainder of that to which Chavez was reelected in 2012) runs till 2018. Unless, of course, he is recalled, for which the constitution has provision and which was attempted in 2004 against Chavez.

* And the constituent assembly election in 1999, called by the then newly elected Chavez.

** From 1958 to 1993, congressional and presidential elections were always concurrent.

***In 1998, the congressional election was moved to be a month ahead of the presidential election in what was a transparent effort by the established parties (who perhaps do read the APSR) to minimize the coattails of the expected presidential victor, Chavez. It was successful, as the main pro-Chavez party (then known as the Fifth Republic Movement) won only 19.8% of the votes, whereas Chavez himself would go on to win 56% in December.

12 thoughts on “The revolution will end with… a midterm election?

    • I agree, I think this is likely to be a Russian-style election. And even if it isn’t, Maduro will shut down parliament and rule by decree, or something along those lines. One way or another, democracy in Venezuela is finished.

  1. At first glance, it would seem that the real surprise was not so much that Venezuela’s opposition MUD swept yesterday’s midterm election there but that the government readily conceded defeat – contrary to most people’s expectations (myself included). That said, El Universal reports that MUD claims to have secured a two-thirds supermajority of at least 112 of 167 seats (and possibly as many as 116) – which would hand enormous power to the opposition forces – but with twenty-two remain still up in the air, I wouldn’t rule out just yet the prospect of the government using all the means at its disposal (legal or otherwise) to keep MUD’s majority below the two-thirds threshold.

  2. Is Venezuela unusual in that the President’s Veto Power is weak compared to other Presidential countries? The legislative branch can override the veto by a simple majority. What was the reason for this? It seems to me that Venezuela’s Presidential System has some faint resemblance of France’s Semi Presidentialism without a Prime Minister.

    This election is interesting in the sense that the opposition got it’s act together, and that an authoritarian dominant party has been defeated massively despite being severe underdogs. It will be interesting how they govern.

    • The weakness of the presidential veto in Venezuela is fairly unusual, yes. But any resemblance to semi-presidentialism is indeed just what you said: faint.

  3. The Supreme Tribunal of Justice (packed with Chavista judges in the lame duck days of the outgoing Assembly) annulled the election of three opposition legislators before they were sworn in on the basis of allegations of irregularities in one state, even though the National Electoral Council is the only one with that kind of authority. Leaders of the newly-elected Assembly decided to swear them in anyway based on the illegitimacy of the annulment. In response, the Supreme Tribunal has found the Assembly in contempt of court and said it will hold any of its legislative acts as invalid until the three legislators are removed (thus also denying the opposition its 2/3 majority). The Socialists’ congressional leader (the previous speaker) has argued that this means the legislature now goes into a state of ‘legislative omission’ and that its functions should be taken over by the Supreme Tribunal. President Maduro recently said he would send a law with emergency economic measures to National Assembly, but has not commented since the court’s statement holding the Assembly in contempt. It remains to be seen if Maduro will decide to go along with the court and proceed to ignore the Assembly, but it seems likely.

    • The political stand-off seems to have ended (for now), as the three opposition legislators in question agreed to give up their seats while investigations into the alleged electoral irregularities continue.

  4. So, there it is: Maduro has just called an ‘economic emergency’ and is set to rule by decree for (at least) the coming two months.

    He has already begun a new round of blaming the situation on the opposition and increasing state controls on the economy.

  5. For what it’s worth, the electoral system(s) of the 2017 Venezuelan Constituent Assembly explained in a TeleSur chart and a CNE presentation

    Even if it wasn’t a sham overall, there’s to begin with massive malapportionment in the “364 constituyentes territoriales” part : 7 seats for “Distrito Capital”, 2 seats for every state capital and 1 seat for every other municipality.

    • back to Rotten Borough-style apportionment then – before 1832 each British county elected two MPs, with most boroughs electing 2 (some elected 1), regardless of population. Similar methods of apportionment were used in British America, and I think in parts of New England it may have persisted for longer than back in the UK.

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