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.

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* 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.