On December 4, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez called the opposition’s eleventh-hour decision to withdraw from the country’s congressional elections an attempted “coup” and pledged that his government would respond with a “counter-coup.” He added that every time the opposition attempts to force him out of power, his government “deepens the process of transformation.” Evidently, changes in store for 2006 will go beyond the radicalization that characterized 2005.
With the three main parties of the opposition – Democratic Action (AD), Venezuelan Project and Justice First – on the sidelines, the ruling coalition took all 167 seats in congress. The voter abstention rate, however, reached 75 percent, in spite of Chávez’s fervent pleas for people to vote. The opposition claims that the new congress lacks legitimacy, despite the fact that voter turnout never reached the 50 percent mark in off-year elections in the decade prior to Chávez’s rise to power in 1998. While hardly a victory for the opposition, the high abstention rate does signal that Chávez’s widespread popularity has not rubbed off on his fellow Chavistas.
The opposition’s decision not to participate took most Venezuelans by surprise. The opposition claimed that the National Electoral Council (CNE) is beholden to the Chavista parties. But this objection does not explain why the opposition parties began to withdraw just hours after the CNE had made important concessions that were encouraged by Organization of American States electoral observers. In previous months, the leaders of the main opposing parties had firmly defended the decision to participate in the elections, in contrast to the opposition’s fringe groups, which called for abstention and civil disobedience. But once AD announced its new line, the other parties followed suit, leaving the impression that they were bowing to pressure.
It is unclear, however, where the pressure came from. The Chavistas place full blame on the Bush administration. “Behind the decision is imperialism, the government of George Bush, his ambassador, and their dollars seeking to delegitimize Venezuelan democracy,” says Nicolás Maduro, president of the national assembly. AD congressman Alfonso Marquina characterized the accusation as “conspiracy theory.” But Maduro’s claim is bolstered by the fact that María Corina Machado, the vice president of SUMATE, a civil organization funded by the National Endowment for Democracy, met with Bush earlier this year. SUMATE had been adamantly calling for abstention prior to AD’s announcement.
The privately owned media may have also exerted pressure. The TV channels Globovision and Radio Caracas, in particular, had adamantly questioned the credibility of the CNE from the outset. The media has largely eclipsed the much-discredited parties in opposing Chávez, even taking “credit” for playing a key role in efforts to overthrow him in 2002.
Another source of pressure was the opposition rank and file, who, disillusioned with party leaders, insisted they do something dramatic. Polls that placed Chávez’s popularity at around 65 percent were embarrassing to parties that had tried to oust him on grounds that he no longer enjoyed the confidence of the people. Justice First’s Ricardo Martínez Hernaiz said, “We had no choice but to call for abstention since our members were not going to go to the polls in any case.”
That Venezuela will undergo important changes in the months ahead is now a foregone conclusion. After emerging triumphant in the August 2004 recall election, Chávez announced that he defended private property rights – but not as an absolute principle. In 2005 the government expropriated a paper mill, a valve company and a sugar mill that had shut down and been taken over by workers. Chávez announced that all other companies that closed down would suffer the same fate. Landowners were also put on notice that estates producing less than 80 percent of their capacity would be expropriated. In 2005 the government proceeded to partially take over 21 estates, along with a Heinz food-processing plant in the eastern state of Monagas. Chávez has begun to call these policies “21st century socialism.”
But the high abstention rate in December does force Chávez to reexamine the performance of elected officials. Two Chavista mayors of Caracas – one representing the entire city and the other, one of its boroughs – have bickered over who is responsible for the city’s dismal garbage collection service. Chávez has threatened to impose a “revolution in the revolution” in order to purge his movement of self-serving activists and possibly corrupt officials.
As for the opposition parties, Chávez insists that their withdrawal from electoral politics was a major blunder and predicts that they will disappear from the political scene. The Chavistas call for the emergence of a new opposition that accepts the rules of the game and Chávez’s legitimacy. Some opposition leaders, such as AD’s former presidential candidate Claudio Fermín, participated in the elections by forming a new party, a move that was hailed by Chávez.
In contrast to Chávez’s declarations, Foreign Minister Alí Rodríguez proposes a dialogue with the main opposition parties, an approach designed to undermine the fringe groups’ call for insurgency.
With Chávez up for re-election in December 2006, the attitude of the Chavistas toward the opposition will help determine which candidates emerge.