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.”)