The most compelling argument of Chavista apologists has always been the idea that, whatever else might be said, Hugo Chávez’s movement represents the voice of an overwhelming majority of Venezuelans. Or perhaps it would be truer to say that this argument used to be compelling. Allied under the banner of a coalition called the Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (MUD), the Venezuelan opposition, in conjunction with a small non-aligned party, has finally refuted this long overstated rationalization for Chavista tyranny by winning a slight majority of the national vote on Sunday’s legislative elections.
A few hours after midnight, and mere moments after the National Electoral Council had announced the results by state (though not, conveniently, in toto), MUD spokesman Ramón Aveledo gave a celebratory speech in which he announced that the political forces opposing Hugo Chávez had won 52 percent of the national vote (see also here, here and here). Former student leader Yon Goicoechea—who, along with thousands of other young Venezuelans, had been a volunteer in the extensive logistical effort needed to mobilize voters, monitor voting centers, and confirm the reliability of tallies across the country—commented on Aveledo’s statement with a 2:30 a.m. tweet summarizing the importance of the victory: “Ramon Guillermo Aveledo is correct. We are the majority. 52% of the national vote. No to communism."
Although Chávez forcefully denied the existence of any such majority, insisting that it was his Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV) that had obtained the majority of the national vote, his complete silence following the announcement of the results was a telling statement in itself: No blanket broadcast, no celebration from the Balcón del Pueblo, no speech of any kind during the small hours of that fateful Monday. The silver-tongued demagogue, so vaunted for his televised charisma and rhetorical prowess, remained unseen during the immediate aftermath of what—judging by the disappointed expressions of his red-clad followers—is the most significant political reversal the Bolivarian revolution has yet suffered.
It was precisely to mitigate, and as much as possible nullify, the effects of such a reversal that the Chavista-controlled National Assembly passed the Organic Law of Electoral Processes in 2009, by means of which it had been able to redraw legislative circuits to its advantage. This electoral reform put the PSUV in a position to win more representatives per state in states where it was unlikely to win a majority of the vote. This was gerrymandering at its ideological best, and it is the reason why, despite losing the national vote, Chávez’ party still “won” the National Assembly.
A few examples of this electoral reform operating on a state level illustrate the severity of the PSUV’s deceit. In the Capital District, for instance, the MUD won 47.8 percent of the total vote and the PSUV won 47.7, yet this somehow left the MUD with three seats and the PSUV with seven. In the state of Carabobo, the MUD won 53.6 percent of the vote but only four seats, while the PSUV, with 43 percent, won six seats. And in the state of Merida, the MUD won 50 percent of the vote and two seats, and the PSUV won 48.7 percent and four seats. Looking at these three cases in particular, one might feel tempted to joke that the MUD appears to have been punished in seats for winning, while the PSUV seems to have been rewarded in seats for losing.
Another electoral disparity worth noting is the fact that the nine states that house 67 percent of the national voting population (Anzoátegui, Aragua, Bolívar, Carabobo, Lara, Miranda, Táchira, Zulia and the Capital District) get a mere 53 percent representation in the National Assembly. The MUD, tellingly, won a majority of the vote in six of these states.
Because the PSUV deliberately modified the electoral terrain to its advantage, the MUD’s national majority in the elections was unlikely to ever translate into a majority of seats in the National Assembly. The opposition therefore officially won—at the time of this writing—65 out of the 165 available seats, which amounts to 39.3 percent, while Chávez’ party has won 98 seats, which amounts to 59.3 percent (the remaining two seats went to the small, non-aligned party Patria Para Todos). The PSUV thus retains a simple majority in the National Assembly, but it lost its qualified majority (upwards of 109 seats), which means the party can no longer, by itself, reform the Constitution or enact Leyes Orgánicas (major legislation concerning constitutional rights, the organization of public powers, and overarching legal frameworks), nor can it designate government ministers or remove judges from the Tribunal Supremo. In addition, the PSUV will no longer be able to pass Enabling Laws (requiring at least 99 votes), which have in the past been used to give el comandante presidente the authority to legislate by decree (on one occasion, for as long as a year and a half).
The PSUV, however, is planning to take full advantage of the time it has left before the assumption of the new assembly on January 5 of next year. The reelected PSUV deputy Iris Varela suggested that the current assembly (in which the PSUV holds 139 seats) is considering whether to grant Chávez decree powers. She also stated that the reigning assembly would speed up the process to appoint 31 new justices to the Tribunal Supremo. The PSUV’s campaign manager, Aristóbulo Istúriz, stated that the current assembly will “pass the laws that need to be passed before its term ends.” It would be unsurprising if this outgoing assembly attempted to pass legislation redefining a qualified majority to mean upwards of 97 seats.
The evening following the elections, Chávez resurfaced. He held an international press conference during which he tried to assuage his followers’ disappointment and defend the results as a clear victory for the Bolivarian revolution. He stressed the clear majority the PSUV had accrued in the National Assembly. He also mocked the opposition’s claim to victory based on a majority of the national vote. “Well, keep on ‘winning’ like this!” he jeered, repeating what he’d written on Twitter that very morning. He also reminded Venezuelans of the local and circuit-based nature of the elections, stressing the fact that since he had not been competing, the results could not be interpreted as a plebiscitary rejection of his government. In claiming this, however, Chávez contradicted his election campaign rhetoric. During the closing ceremony for his campaign, he reminded his followers that a vote for his party’s candidates was a “vote for Chávez.” During the same event, Chávez also asserted that a victory for his party would be a “prelude to what will happen here in December of 2012,” when presidential elections, in which he has promised to run, are scheduled to take place.
At the press conference, Chávez also claimed that, in any case, the majority still lay with his party, since the PSUV had received 5.4 million votes and the MUD five point three. During the question portion of the event, however, Chávez met an unexpected challenge to his version of events that highlighted the election’s most basic contradiction. Andreina Flores, a Venezuelan reporter for Radio France Internationale, had the temerity and common sense to confront Chávez about the salient incongruity between votes and seats. Following Chávez’ version of events regarding the final vote tally (5.4 million for the PSUV and 5.3 for the MUD), Flores inquired why, if the opposition had obtained “almost the same number of votes as the Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela, the opposition won 37 seats less than the PSUV.” (This difference has since dwindled to 33 seats.) “I wonder,” Flores continued, “whether this confirms the opposition’s thesis that the redistribution of the [representational] weight of electoral circuits was intentionally done to favor the PSUV. Or perhaps, even worse, is a vote for the PSUV worth two?” Swiftly and palpably, the emperor was revealed to have no clothes.
Chávez retorted with a mean-spirited tangent about the journalistic integrity of Radio France and asked Flores whether she knew the Venezuelan constitution. It was a peculiar question, given that the section of the constitution devoted to political rights states that the law guarantees the principle of proportional representation; the section dealing with the legislative branch states: "The National Assembly shall consist of Deputies elected in each of the federal entities by universal, direct, personalized and secret ballot with proportional representation. (emphasis added). Of course, in Venezuela today no one but a fool would cite constitutional authority against presidential fiat in the hopes of redressing a grievance. Referring to the constitution as an actual moral standard or limit on the power of government will become possible only in a post-Chávez Venezuela.
Flores, for her part, simply reiterated the question, while Chávez tautologically insisted that the elections were about electoral circuits and not the nation as a whole. Of course, since Chávez’ followers had redrawn these circuits, his referring to them merely restated the premise behind Flores’ question: the circuit reorganization was the problem to begin with. In addition, though Chávez was technically right to say that the elections had not been national in character, he had unabashedly imbued them with a plebiscitary quality by exhorting Venezuelans to think of him in deciding among candidates.
Chávez’ outburst of resentment against Flores, along with his long-winded attempt to convince his followers that they really did win the elections, are the telltale signs of injured confidence and the result of a newly discovered sense of vulnerability. Two Chavista intellectuals, meanwhile, have already made their misgivings public. The German political theorist, Heinz Dieterich, who wrote Socialism of the XXI Century, published an article in which he regrets Chávez’ inability to “destroy the opposition electoral bloc” and asks himself, with palpable unease, whether Chávez will be able win in the 2012 general elections. And the columnist Cesar Guevara wrote that “the revolution was defeated” at the polls, insofar as the PSUV was not able to win a qualified majority of the assembly (66.6 percent). Commenting on the unfavorable portion of the national vo1te obtained by the PSUV, Guevara described the election results as constituting a “double defeat.”
Although Chávez’ PSUV remains by far the country’s most popular party, it now faces the unsettling reality of no longer representing a majority of Venezuelans. The coalition known as La Unidad Democrática, which has coalesced all major parties and movements seeking an alternative to Chavismo, now represents that majority. Chávez knows this and is having a difficult time hiding the fact that he knows this. In addition, the scandalous disparity between votes and seats revealed Chávez’ “victorious” PSUV to be a group of petty, gerrymandering thugs.
For these reasons, an unmistakable sense of chagrin suddenly perched itself atop the head of our loquacious revolutionary, who cannot now find the words with which to explain why, if the opposition won a majority of the national vote—or, as per Chávez, very close to a majority—it failed to win even half the seats in the National Assembly. He simply cannot explain the existence of these two majorities: the one, based on votes, is made up of people; and the other, based on the manipulation of voting districts, is made up of lawmakers. The self-serving sham that is Chávez’s “democracia participativa y protagónica” has been made perfectly obvious. Let those who have eyes see.
Antonio Sosa is a writer living in Caracas, Venezuela. This column first appeared at Reason.com.