Two elections on Sunday are worth watching as examples of an electoral path to authoritarianism. In Venezuela, voters will vote on a series of constitutional amendments that would greatly enhance the power of both the state in the economy and the president within the state. In Russia, voters will vote in legislative Duma elections that are sure to result in the outgoing President’s party winning a massive majority of the seats.
In both cases, we are witnessing the consolidation of authoritarian systems despite ongoing electoral processes and the retention of formal institutions of separated powers.
The Venezuelan referendum features votes on two packages of amendments. Both packages bundle reforms on both economic and social policy claims on the state and powers of the presidency. Of course, one of the reforms would lift the existing term limit on the presidency itself.
Steven Taylor has posted an image of the ballot. He also quotes from venezuelanalysis.com:
Venezuelans will vote on the reform on December 2nd and will do so in two blocks. Block â€œAâ€ includes President Chavezâ€™s original proposal, as amended by the National Assembly, which would change 33 articles out of the 350 articles in the constitution. Also included in block A are another 13 articles introduced by the National Assembly. Block â€œBâ€ includes another 26 reform articles proposed by the National Assembly. Voters may vote â€œYesâ€ or â€œNoâ€ on each block.
Steven also posts a link to a PDF of the text of the reforms (in Spanish).
Polls have been somewhat mixed about the chances of the referendum, but it would be surprising if the substantial organizational prowess of the Chavista forces were insufficient to get the proposals over the 50% hurdle. How much over is hard to say. A close vote–either way–would be potentially dangerous, revealing the deep polarization.
Meanwhile, in the event that the referendum loses or is very close, the ChÃ¡vez camp is already prepared with the charges of CIA fomenting of opposition. James Petras, a well known sociologist and Latin Americanist, was on Democracy Now! this morning discussing these allegations and a supposed memo. (The memo may well be real, but its source was the ChÃ¡vez government, so there is reason to be skeptical.) And could the CIA be working with Trotskyites? Petras thinks so! (Many leftists flocked to ChÃ¡vez and then later broke with him, so there are indeed many left-wing organizations among the opposition.)
Petras suggests that there is nothing particularly worrisome about the end of presidential term limits, and notes that the ChÃ¡vez camp likes to cite cases of long tenure in parliamentary systems (Blair, Howard, and Japan’s LDP are specifically mentioned) as evidence that there is nothing out of the ordinary for democracies to have one party, even one leader, in power for multiple terms, even decades.
The government has argued, with some effectiveness, that in the parliamentary systems you have indefinite terms of office… So they donâ€™t see this asâ€”they donâ€™t describe this as an unusual happening, much more like a parliamentary system, rather than a presidential system, though in this caseâ€”
Unfortunately, just as this comparative institutions stuff was getting interesting, the interviewer cut Petras off and changed the subject. But maybe it was just as well, as this is actually very bad comparative politics. There is, of course, nothing that ChÃ¡vez is proposing that is making the system more parliamentary. Quite the contrary. He is proposing to concentrate ever more authority in his own hands, and to make himself eligible for reelection in perpetuity.
Not even a Howard, a Blair, or a Thatcher ever enjoyed the concentration of power that a president potentially can have for the simple reason that parliamentary systems enforce collective responsibility within the cabinet and promote party-building by the government and opposition alike. There are reasons why very few parliamentary systems have term limits, while such limits on executive tenure exist for virtually all elected presidents who serve as unchallenged head of their government (i.e. without a PM accountable to parliament). There are also reasons why almost all authoritarian leaders that arise within formally parliamentary institutions eventually change the formal institutions to presidential (e.g. Mugabe in Zimbabwe, among many others). While democratic presidential institutions actually put more checks on the chief executive than is the case in some majoritarian parliamentary democracies, there is no escaping the fact that presidential institutions are far more amenable to the electoral path to authoritarianism than are parliamentary.
The president fully controls the cabinet (and, in the absence of an institutionalized legislature with countervailing incentives, may also directly command the bureaucracy). The president runs for office directly and often–as in Venezuela–needs only a plurality of the votes. And the president need not have an institutionalized party as his vehicle for political support. It is feasible to have a party that is little more than a vehicle for placing presidential loyalists in the legislature via the president’s own coattails. As ChÃ¡vez has.
There are, on the other hand, no particularly good models of parliamentary authoritarianism. And that makes the Russian case all the more interesting. Here we have a vast federal and multi-ethnic country–empire, really–that has been governed under a presidential democracy or semi-democracy since almost the moment that the USSR began to fall apart in 1990. At that point, the Russian legislature chose Boris Yeltsin to be president as part of its assertion of authority against the crumbling USSR institutions.
Yeltsin’s successor as president of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin, is now wrapping up his second of his constitutionally prescribed maximum two terms. In the legislative election Sunday, Putin will be heading the list of candidates of his United Russia Party. Just under two months ago, he announced intention to continue playing a â€œmajor roleâ€ in Russian political life.
There has been talk of Putin taking on some, as yet informal, title like “Leader of the Nation.” Yet without a formal institution under his command, he would be unlikely to retain the powerful de-facto role he and his supporters appear to have in mind for him, especially given that the presidency will soon be in the hands of a successor. I remain puzzled as to why Putin did not use his evidently vast political machine and patronage to secure an abolition of the presidential term limit.
One possibility is that Putin will suddenly decide that Russia’s ‘democratization’ requires a move to a parliamentary system, so Putin can be the perpetual prime minister. But then we are up against the fact that, as I noted, there are no really good models of parliamentary authoritarianism. Will Russia embark on one?
Another possibility is suggested in a news item at Canada.com:
It is thought that he will declare a preferred surrogate â€” the current favourites are Kremlin insiders Sergei Ivanov, a former KGB officer and former minister of defence, or Dmitri Medvedev, chairman of Gazprom (Russiaâ€™s largest company) or Viktor Zubkov, whom Putin recently hand-picked as prime minister â€” to replace him as president.
Then, after winning the presidency, Putinâ€™s successor would resign, paving the way for emergency elections by which Putin could become president again.
Whatever the scenario, it is likely that both Russia’a and Venezuela’s elections on Sunday are further steps in the dismantling of electoral democracies and their transformation into authoritarian regimes.