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.

Venezuela’s close result

Apparently, Hugo Chavez’s personal vote is not as strong in death as many of us assumed it would be. His designated successor, Nicolas Maduro, has been elected, but by a very tight margin, according to official results. The opposition candidate, Henrique Capriles, is contesting Maduro’s victory claim.

Just last October, an ailing Chavez defeated Capriles by a margin of about eleven percentage points.

POTUS winks

I often listen to the POTUS channel on XM satellite radio. It is quite good, at least when it sticks to its original theme, the US presidential elections of 2008, and its subsequently broader theme of “Politics of the United States” since the said elections. However, yesterday I was moved to write a letter:

On July 28, during the Morning Briefing segment on the day’s birthdays, Tim Farley referred to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s birthday. He said that Chavez was “wink, wink elected in 1998.”

This remark shows considerable ignorance of Venezuelan politics. Even those who are not fans of President Chavez must recognize that Chavez became president in a fully democratic election in 1998, under the rules of that country’s uninterrupted string of elections dating back to 1958. One might argue about the democratic character of the Venezuelan regime in the intervening decade, in which Chavez or his party has won several elections, and even accepted defeat in one key referendum, but during which civil liberties have been seriously eroded. Nonetheless, Chavez was elected, not “wink, wink elected.”

This phrasing by Mr. Farely is beneath the dignity of a usually unbiased and professional program like POTUS. If I want coverage that caters to the ideological biases of certain sectors of American political opinion, I will tune to Fox News.

–Matthew Shugart
Professor of Political Science
University of California, San Diego

(Institutional affiliation noted for identification purposes only, of course.)

Is Venezuela taking the ‘P’ out of MMP?

Rob Richie (of Fairvote) sent me this item. It seems to imply that Venezuela’s electoral system, which has been mixed-member proportional since 1993, may be on the verge of becoming something far less proportional.

Excerpted from El Universal:

Election watchdog sees deteriorated quality of the democratic system

Criticism against the Organic Law on Electoral Processes (LOPE) continues. Non-governmental organization Ojo Electoral said, in a statement, that the legal instrument undermines the democratic quality of the electoral laws and Venezuelan society.

Members of the electoral watchdog highlighted that the LOPE eliminates, in Article 7, the principle of proportional representation set forth in article 63 of the Venezuelan Constitution, by removing the link between nominal election system and proportional representation through the establishment of lists.

The group explained that this situation “removes the provision that ensures proportionality and, on the contrary, it provides the pernicious effect of the so-called twin ballots, a party duplication technique that contradicts the spirit of proportionality, without the need to use this mechanism.

The NGO deems it possible that the new law could permit the establishment of politically-biased electoral districts to allow the creation of electoral districts in which a powerful constituency could elect more government positions than those opposing a given political project.

The elimination of the link between the nominal and list tiers would imply a move to a “parallel” mixed-member majoritarian (MMM) system.

Venezuelan term limits

With the approval of yesterday’s Venezuelan referendum, not only will President Hugo Chavez be eligible to run again when his current term ends in 2012 (and again in 2019…), but also we have one less country with legislative term limits. The referendum removes term limits on all elected officials, not only the president. Venezuela’s Chavista constitution was among the very few countries where national legislators have (or had) limits on the number of terms they can serve.

Mexico has prohibited consecutive terms for legislators since the 1930s, as has Costa Rica since the 1940s. I believe the Philippines still has limits on the number of terms its legislators may serve. Ecuador did at one time, but I recall they were lifted. (Maybe someone knows the details.) Of course, several US states have such limits. But legislative term limits are rare overall. They just became a bit rarer.

For lots of graphs and other analysis of the referendum, see Caracas Chronicles. See also boz’s five points. Greg Weeks makes a point with which I heartily concur: “I would add that the opposition deserves more analytical scrutiny, given that Chávez has been in power a decade [in which there have been regular elections] but it remains fragmented and incoherent.”

Bolivia: A Democratic Revolution–or some other kind?

It looks like Evo Morales may have won over 50% of the vote after all, in which case he would be president-elect. Even if he turns out to have just missed a majority, the lead is so strong that the vote in congress would be a simple formal ratification, and not a real horse-trading session, as has been the case after previous elections.

Bolivia has a majority indigenous population, yet it has never had an indigenous president before. Morales is the founder of a relatively new political party, the Movement towards Socialism (MAS) that has its roots in a social movement among the indigenous peasantry and coca growers. Now he will be president. This is clearly a democratic revolution, in the sense of a turning of power over to a long-excluded group. But where will Morales lead Bolivia? Could this election mark the beginnings of a deeper and less democratic revolution, as seems to be occurring in Venezuela since the election of Hugo Chávez Frías in 1998? (I addressed this question previously, back in October, but it seems a lot has changed suddenly!)

To attempt an answer to that question requires putting the two countries in context. Bolivia has a more institutionalized democracy today than Venezuela had by 1998–and anyone who knows the previous trajectory of these two countries will appreciate how ironic a statement that is! In the quarter century since democracy was restored in Bolivia, power has alternated peacefully six times already (not counting the recent inter-election turnovers, which have also been relatively peaceful, if irregular). Bolivia has had a multiparty system in which cross-party coalitions have been necessary to govern. This democratic space allowed Morales to organize his followers, establish a legal political party, compete in elections, hold seats in the legislature–and bring his followers into the streets seeking recognition of their long-suppressed demands. By contrast, by 1998 the once seemingly solid Venezuelan democracy was in full collapse, with the period after 1989 featuring two military coup attempts (one led by then- Lt. Col. Chávez himself), mass violent rioting, and two successive presidents who attempted to govern without support in congress and in violation of civil liberties.

Chávez thus first attempted a military route to power, and then upon being elected six years later, he had almost no party backing whatsoever. In legislative elections a few months before he was elected president, Chávez’s hastily created Fifth Republic Movement won less than 20% of the vote, finishing almost five percentage points behind the predominant party of Venezuela’s democratic era, Acción Democrática. Thus, neither the newly elected “revolutionary” nor the main alternative, had strong electoral or congressional support.

Morales, by contrast, may have a majority in both houses of congress, or close to it. Congress is elected at the same time (and on the same ticket) as the president in Bolivia. The party he created, MAS, has steadily and dramatically built popular support. He was elected to congress in 1997. MAS and Morales won 21% of the vote in the 2002 election, which was good enough for a close second (to Gonzalo Sánchez de Losada’s 22.5%). Unlike Chávez, who came to power with strong personal support, but little initial organizational backing, Morales has both electoral experience and a broad social movement to call upon. In Sunday’s election, the runner-up, Tuto Quiroga’s PODEMOS, won a higher percentage of the vote than all but two leading candidates in elections since 1980, and did well in elections for regional posts. Thus, unlike in Venezuela, both the “revolutionary” and his main opposition have substantial electoral and congressional support—and the latter has a base in important regional departments.

In other words, in Bolivia, both the new government and its main opposition are consolidating their support, whereas in Venezuela, Chávez was just getting started politically when he was elected, while the alternative forces that could check him were disintegrating.

The election of Morales thus represents a maturation of a process that has been building for years. It is part of a remarkable evolution of democracy in Bolivia, historically one of Latin America’s least stable countries. Nonetheless, the rise of this majority creates a potential danger. This election–with a majority government backed by a social movement in a polarized society–represents a turning point in Bolivian democracy. Precisely where it will turn is very much an open question. The real risk is not so much Morales himself, but whether he can control his own movement–which will come to power with unrealistically high expectations—and how his opponents, based in the lowland departments where most of the country’s gas resources lie, will react.

Morales will be the first president since the restoration of democracy in 1980 to have an electoral mandate, as opposed to one derived from the various party caudillos bargaining over the spoils of office from their congressional power base. Leaving aside the election of 1978, which was quickly annulled, or the military-backed election of 1966, one could argue that this will be Bolivia’s first electoral mandate from a competitive election since 1951, when Victor Paz Estenssoro of the National Revolutionary Movement (MNR) defeated his closest opponent, 43-32.

For anyone who knows Bolivian history, the parallel is not encouraging. In April of 1952, the MNR, with the backing of a series of strikes by miners and urban workers, and backed by defecting elements of the national police, precipitated a revolution that quickly spread to include peasant uprisings and generated what remains one of Latin America’s greatest, if rather unsung, social and political upheavals of the 20th century. It inaugurated a brief period of single-party hegemony. In three subsequent elections, the MNR totally dominated its opposition. But then the MNR was ousted by a military coup in 1964, in one of the early ripples in the wave of repressive military rule that would wash over the continent in that decade and the next.

Partly in response to the MNR hegemonic period, Bolivian constitutions have subsequently bucked the prevailing model of presidentialism in the region and established instead a “parliamentarized presidentialism.” Under this hybrid form, congress selects the president when no candidate obtains a majority of the popular vote. Originally, congress was allowed to select from the top three vote-getters. Indeed, one president, Jaime Paz Zamora, was chosen by congress despite finishing third in the popular vote in 1989, with 22% of the vote. (In that election, future two-time president Sánchez de Losada, led with 25.8%, and ex-dictator and also future constitutional president Hugo Banzer Suárez had 25.4%.)

I said a few days ago that I felt the parliamentarized presidentialism model had served Bolivia relatively well, but that it might be time for a change to either pure presidentialism or pure parliamentarism. Either, I noted, would prevent the election of an extremist who was a Condorcet loser (on the assumption that in the pure presidential alternative, there would be a runoff election and not a president elected by plurality). When I wrote those words, I could not imagine that Morales would win over 40% of the vote, let alone a majority. As Miguel Centellas notes in a comment to my post on Bolivia from Sunday, Bolivia suddenly has a pure presidential system, because it just witnessed for the first time in over half a century a directly elected president in a competitive election. Obviously Morales was not a Condorcet loser after all!

Now the hard part begins. There is almost certain to be a constituent assembly to reassess Bolivian democracy from the ground up. It may include movements towards federalism, given that Morales’s opposition is regionally based, and that Sunday also featured the first-ever popular election of departmental governors. There is no guarantee that Morales and other political figures in Bolivia can navigate the difficult currents ahead. But there is no reason to expect a Chávez-like implosion. Bolivia does not have the institutional vacuum that led to Chávez’s election, and then facilitated his taking his government in a increasingly undemocratic revolutionary direction. Bolivia today has a much more institutionalized democracy than Venezuela had by 1998.

Some other blog roundups worth a read are:

Publius Pundit: “…There was nothing fraudulent about it, and voter turnout was an amazing 80%. […] But there is no question that this is not necessarily good news for the U.S.

boz: “If Morales tries to take a 50% win as a full mandate, he’ll quickly find himself shut down by the population. It is up to Morales to reach out to his opposition and to act as the president for all Bolivians, not just his supporters.” (Excerpted from boz’s excellent “five points.”)

The Venezuelan opposition boycott

Obviously, parties do not boycott elections, as Venezuela‘s largest opposition parties will do in Sunday’s National Assembly election, that they have any chance of winning. They boycott when they know they are going to lose, but when they calculate that they have a case to be made that the process itself is unfair.

Thus the point of a bocott is to provoke a crisis for the government. Any governing party bent on total domination of its opposition wants to keep an opposition involved right up until the time that it (i.e. the government) is secure enough to clamp down. When the opposition cries fraud and pulls out before it is at that point of domination, it is a crisis for the government. The facade of demcoracy has been torn down when you no longer can point to the persence of political competition as evidence that you aren’t authoritarian.

This is all done before an audience–both external and internal. The opposition is counting on this boycott exposing the Chávez government as no longer democratic. The government will count on the opposition being seen as sore losers–in advance of any votes being cast and counted.

It is not unusual for boycotted elections to result in subsequent elections–sometimes well ahead of schedule–being called under different procedures negotiated between the government and opposition. The Peruvian experience of 2000-2001 comes to mind. But then there are also cases–some Eastern European cases after WWII–when the opposition is essentially never heard from again. I don’t see Venezuela–yet–in the latter category. The opposition is playing a very high stakes game. But given the increasing authoritarian bent of the Chávez government, they had little choice but to shift the arena away from the elections themselves and into an arena in which the nature of the regime itself is at stake.

In other words, they are still competing. Just not, for now, for votes.

More on presidential reelection in Colombia (and elsewhere)

I recommend the remarks by boz on Sunday regarding the approval of presidential eligibility for reelection in Colombia.

The issue of reelecton limits (such as the single-term ban now being lifted for Colombian presidents) arises, of course, only in presidential systems, where collective party responsibility is far weaker than in parliamentary systems. Continue reading

Revolutionary situations?: Bolivia and Morales in comparative perspective

A commenter to my previous post on Bolivia reasserts his claim that a potential victory by Evo Morales in the scheduled interim election for Bolivia’s presidency would lead to a revolutionary dictatorship. The gist of the commenter’s argument is that it happened in Cuba (Castro) and Venezuela (Chávez), and it could happen in Bolivia:

It doesn’t happen overnight, but with a determined despot, it eventually happens. In fact, it always happens.

Wow, what an amazing claim! This is a bit like the claims made by players on victorious sports teams that they wanted it more than the other team. If we believe in ourselves, nobody can stop us! No, the winning team did not want it more, it won because of forces largely out of the immediate control of the players themselves. Same with revolutions and revolutionaries. It is not the determination of the would-be dictator that makes a revolution; it is the collapse or take-over of state institutions that would otherwise check the “determined despot.” In the Bolivian case, the probability is low that Morales could become president in the first place. But if he does, the probability is even lower that he could control congress or dispense with its check on the presidency, and lower still that he could overcome the resistance of the armed forces to the consolidation of a totalitarian-style revolutionary regime.

Let’s review the Cuban and Venezuelan (and, I will add, Chilean) cases and see the extent to which Bolivia has similar characteristics.

In the case of Cuba, Batista’s army collapsed, unwilling to stand and fight once the dictator fled. (I have developed this argument in Theory and Society (1989), and Robert Dix and others have developed similar arguments.) There were no political parties to articulate the interests of the middle class (as noted by Javier Corrales in Latin American Politics and Society, 2001), and most of the middle class that might have formed the backbone of an oppositions to Castro—the way the Nicaraguan middle class and its parties and backing of armed resistance would later check the Sandinistas—fled the island. There was no legislature to check Castro because it had already been emasculated by Batista. In the decades since coming to power, Castro has never permitted the development of institutions that might check him (as argued by Perez-Stable in Comparative Politics, 1999). Cuba is about as institution-free an environment as one can imagine for a relatively stable political system, and it has been such almost from the day Castro took power, thanks to the collapse of the army and the absence of significant political parties or a legislature.

In Venezuela, Chávez had first tried to seize power in a coup in 1992, for which he was subsequently dismissed from the army, but for which he received widespread accolades from the lower classes who had been losing ground under what had become an increasingly hollow form of “democracy.” He was later released from prison and mounted a presidential campaign, and won 58% of the vote in 1998—the most ever for a candidate under the 1958–98 electoral regime. He campaigned openly on a platform of replacing the country’s constitution and signed a decree convoking a referendum on the matter on his very first day in office. This represented a break in the institutional order, but one that he clearly had a mandate for (and the supreme court upheld it). In the ensuing years, he has indeed consolidated an ever narrower regime that could be moving in a quasi-totalitarian direction (as I argue in a review of an edited volume on Venezuela; the review will be published soon in Perspectives on Politics). While I do agree that Venezuela’s political situation has radicalized, it is still a very long way from being “another Cuba.” (And while land seizures are indeed on the increase, as the commenter to my first post notes, I would note that they are nowhere near the scale of Zimbabwe. Moreover, Chávez still confronts stronger opposition parties and a larger middle class than Mugabe does.)

Now, do these conditions apply in Bolivia? First of all, we do not even know if the elections for December are going ahead, as I noted in my earlier post. If they are, the outer limit in voter support that Morales can obtain is probably in the low-to-mid thirties. (He won 22% and placed second last time.) Under Bolivia’s constitution, the popular vote is not decisive. In fact, Bolivia is one of two countries in the world in which the presidential candidate who obtains the highest vote total in the final or sole round of popular voting can “lose” to the runner up. (The other, of course, is the United States.)

Having failed to win a majority outright, Morales would be dependent upon horse-trading in congress just to get the presidency in the first place (as noted by baz in the comments to my earlier post, as well as in the post itself). It is highly unlikely that congress would elevate him to the presidency, but even if it did, he would face a congress in which he had a plurality of seats, but nowhere near a majority. Unlike Chávez, who also faced a fragmented congress (elected, unprecedentedly for Venezuela, months before the president in a transparent and successful effort to deprive the winner of a working majority in the body), Morales would lack the popular backing to decree a constitutional-replacement process over the heads of that congress. Not having built up a base of support inside the junior office corps (as had Chávez, from the inside), Morales could not count on the acquiescence of the armed forces. I cannot see how a hypothetical Morales presidency could avoid being checked by congress, the military (and probably also the judiciary, which has become quite assertive in recent years, unlike that of Venezuela in the 1990s).

If Morales were to become president, the historical parallel most relevant would not be Venezuela or Cuba, but Chile under Allende. And we know how that ended. But even that scenario is unlikely to be repeated in Bolivia were Morales to become president. Unlike Allende, Morales could not count on a broad alliance of well established parties to support him. He certainly would not get the unanimous support of congress to nationalize gas production, as Allende got for nationalizing copper. The pro-Allende parties managed a narrow majority in 1971 nationwide municipal elections and very narrowly missed a majority in congressional elections three months before the September 11 coup. Allende was a long-time senator with considerable respect across the political spectrum, even if his avowedly revolutionary agenda commanded only minority support. Morales would have none of Allende’s advantages, such as they were.

Revolutions that occur almost always surprise us. They are notoriously hard to see coming. But if Morales (1) became president, (2) controlled or overcame congress, and (3) marginalized the military, it would be one of the great surprises of contemporary Latin American regime change. Even in revolutions, the preexisting institutions matter. (That was for you Steven T.: a little flashback to, what, 1988?)

Whether Morales is selected president one day or not—and I still think the likely outcome is not—the most likely scenario is continuing instability and ungovernability. Not a pretty scenario, but not the installation of a Marxist dictatorship, either.