Evaluation of Venezuela’s 2015 National Assembly Elections
Upon recommendation by the International Strategy Center, Mr. Chung Yeon Wook and I participated as international election observers in the December 6 National Assembly elections. From the voting, to confirmation of a voter’s identity, to the counting of votes, Venezuela’s election system is automated and computerized. Its fairness and transparency was developed over a decade of operation. During that time, it has accumulated a positive domestic and international reputation through participation and direction from political parties and civil society, and by monitoring from organizations such as the Carter Center and the Organization of American States.
With this historic experience under its belt, the current Venezuelan government is no longer inviting international inspectors. Instead, members of UNASUR serve as the election inspectors. International political parties and NGOs are instead invited to witness the election process and to share their opinions on how to improve it.
Before the elections, the United States and the European Union had pressured the Venezuelan government to accept “neutral” international inspectors to ensure fair elections. The National Electoral Council (CNE) firmly rejected such pressure. They stated that in Venezuela’s democracy, the fairness, transparency, and accuracy of the electoral system including voting had been settled through a long period of discussion and experience between the domestic political parties and that Venezuela would no longer allow foreign intervention in their election process. The US led Organization of American States overturning of Haiti’s presidential elections through election inspectors that did not recognize the results served as precedent: The president elect had been a left nationalist not easily controlled by the US. This is the opposite of when a pro-US president is elected. Regardless of the irregularities or suspicions surrounding the elections, the US deems those elections fair.
Given this historical experience, Venezuela’s CNE rejected the US State Department led international election inspections viewing it as a vehicle to destabilizing the country. Even before the elections, US State Secretary Hillary Clinton implied that she would only recognize the elections if the ruling left party PSUV was defeated. In addition, Brazil’s CNE stated that it would not participate in UNASUR’s election inspection program given Venezuela’s rejection of international election inspectors. This was a reminder that solidarity between Latin American governments is still weak.
On December 7, after the electoral process was concluded, UNASUR and the international observers submitted a report about the electoral system’s fairness and transparency. All the observers stated that Venezuela’s elections were carried out without any major problems and stated that impartiality and transparency were maintained.
The results of the election, and responses from each faction
Even before the elections, PSUV was predicted to lose. Nonetheless, the magnitude of the election losses far exceeded expectations. Out of 165 seats, the PSUV-led Great Patriotic Pole won 55 seats (42% of the vote). The opposition alliance MUD won 112 seats (57% of the vote) achieving over ⅔ of the total seats.
While the ruling party’s defeat was bitter, it, paradoxically, also showed that Venezuelan democracy which overcame various challenges has grown, is solid, and its electoral system is completely fair. After President Maduro April 2013 by-elections victory by a narrow margin, the Venezuelan opposition has been clamoring that Maduro won through a corrupt election. Thus, the opposition has carried out sabotage and violent protests nation-wide. In that process, mostly supporters of the government, public officials, police officers, and soldiers have been killed. Now, the fairness of the elections has once again been confirmed erasing any doubts about the fairness of Maduro’s victory even if by a small margin.
MUD has acquired tremendous power in the National Assembly being able to pass or repeal any bill that it wants and appoint major government officials. Furthermore, it has the power to propose amendments to the Constitution; of course, after approval by referendum by the people. If they want, they can even replace Supreme Court judges or members of the National Electoral Council.
However, just because the opposition party dominates the National Assembly doesn’t mean that they can do whatever they want. As is well known, Venezuela’s Constitution stipulates the separation of power into 5 bodies that check and balance each other. At present, the opposition party is dominating only one of these bodies. Of course, they will try to reconstitute the different bodies, but such changes are dependent on various restrictions. Furthermore, they cannot create laws that counteract the constitutional principles that protect human rights.
On the one hand, President Maduro on the early hours of the 7th even before all the ballots were counted announced the electoral defeat and asked Bolivarian revolutionary forces for discussion on the streets. In response, community organizers, labor union leaders, farmer’s movements and various social movement activists as well as general party members reflected on the direction and methods of the Bolivarian Revolution.
These words by President Maduro were significant, “We came from the streets. Now, we must return to the streets.”
Looking at the situation before the elections, the opposition tried to bring down the Bolivarian Revolution through an economic war. Chaos in its foreign markets, hoarding and hiding, and the selling of gasoline and goods in the black market have led the government to compromise on its economic policy with the bourgeoisie. The Maduro government’s partial compromise in its policies towards the currency market to stabilize it led to protest and the resignation by a team of principled public officials that had started with Chavez.
The slump in oil prices has further limited the options of the revolutionary government. For a Venezuela still unable to break from its economic dependence on oil, a slump in energy prices has contracted its national revenue putting a burden on its operating budget.
Professor James Petras attributes the defeats in Argentina’s presidential election, Venezuela’s National Assembly elections, and the failure of Brazil’s Worker Party not to the revolution, but to its inability to radicalize further. Thus, paradoxically, Latin America will be able to stop neoliberalism from taking root.
The left tide sweeping Latin America was a mass response to the basic contradictions of neoliberalism. Will these masses tolerate a return to it? How will the political situation change if the bourgeois camp (the executive branch in Argentina and the legislative branch in Venezuela) attempts to restore neoliberalism?
During his campaign, Argentine President-elect Macri chanted, “We will change.” He chanted these words rather than the neoliberalist one in his heart because he knew he would not be able to win otherwise. It was after getting elected that he stated that he would compromise with US vulture capitalists and privatize state companies and abolish the state subsidies for the vulnerable classes. Can neoliberalism be restored?
Venezuela’s opposition party is even more careful. Since the presidential elections, Capriles sold himself not as a right-wing candidate but as an heir to Chavez’s policies. He knew he would not win if he opposed the achievements of the revolution.
Furthermore, the weak unity in the opposition’s electoral alliance, MUD, will prevent it from efficiently fighting against the Maduro government. While the opposition came together in order to win, they will be unable to come together into one camp.
Economic difficulties such as inflation nearing 200% the drop in the value of the Bolivar (Venezuela’s currency) the inability to buy basic necessities have given rise to the ni-ni group. Nonetheless, even in these most difficult of conditions, 42% of the population supports the revolution. They are not simply those that vote. They are the ones out on the streets discussing and fighting for the revolution and practicing direct democracy to create a better society. They are looking back at the revolutionary process critically and working to lay a new path.
The revolutionary camp is facing its biggest crisis in the 17 years since its inception in 1988.
Many internal contradictions emerged as the Bolivarian movement, which started from grassroots movements, took state power and pushed for socialist reforms. One of these was the growth of “Bolivarian bourgeoisie.” They agreed with the revolution and took over many positions in the state apparatus and used it to gain a privileged position and reap personal profits. This resulted in a contradiction at the core of mass based movements.
When the economy is doing well, these internal contradictions are not so apparent. However, when the economy is in trouble, internal contradictions immediately transform into systemic crisis.
Ultimately, the deceleration of the revolution developed into a defeat during the National Assembly elections.
Nonetheless, the state apparatus that the revolutionary government renovated during that time can serve to a certain degree as a safety valve against bourgeois reactionary attempts. The military is dominated by Bolivarian forces. The soldiers are also more radical than the general population. If the right wing lays a hand on the social human rights founded upon the Constitution, they will have a massive class struggle on their hands. Support for the right-wing in the ni-ni group is limited. This group is ultimately not interested in fundamentally changing the Bolivarian system. Rather, they are a reaction to the incompetence of the ruling party.
When Maduro appealed for a return to the streets, he meant that the foundation of the revolution will be formed not simply through a betterment of material conditions but by the creation of a new person, which Che Guevara referred to as the socialist person, which would internalize and put into practice the demands and needs of the community.
Seok-Ryol Hurh (Professor at Chungbuk National University, ISC Advisor)