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Rigged elections

by Klaus Schaeffler

Opinion

Chávez supporters

Chávez supporters

In Venezuela’s recent parliamentary elections, the government won at most 49 % of the votes, but nearly 60 % of the seats. [ By Klaus Schaeffler ]

On 26 September, 17.5 million regis­tered voters in Venezuela were called on to elect 165 delegates to the National Assembly and 12 representatives to the Latin American parliament (Parlatino). A total of 66 % voted, which is a high turnout for parliamentary elections in Venezuela.

According to the official results, the ruling parties PSUV (Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela – United Socialist Party of Venezuela) and the Communist Party to­gether won 49 % of the valid votes, and the opposition MUD (Mesa de la Unidad Democrática – Coalition for Democratic Unity) and PPT (Patria para Todos – Fatherland for All) won 51 %. Independent observers suspect that the opposition actually won a greater share of the votes.

The ruling parties used the means of their public office in the election campaign. In the week before the elections, pub­lic television and various radio stations broadcast election propaganda. Venezuela does not have a law on campaign contributions. The electoral roll was kept under wraps.

The opposition parties won a significant victory, albeit a narrow one, following their absence from the National Assembly for the last five years. They had boycotted the parliamentary elections in 2005 because there was no guarantee of fair conditions.

This time, the fact that the opposition parties won the majority of votes failed to translate into a majority of seats. They will have only 67 of 165 members of parliament, while the ruling parties will have 98. This is the result of gerrymandering: the gov­ernment recently changed the boundaries of electoral districts.

The discrepancy between how ­votes were cast and the allocation of parliamentary ­seats shows clearly that the election system is rigged. Experts reckon that the opposition would have won 83 seats and the government only 82 seats if the previous electoral-­district boundaries had still applied.

Article 63 of Venezuela’s 1999 Constitution guarantees the principle of proportional representation. Nevertheless, in the run-up to the elections, the rules were altered by the government in cooperation with the National Assembly, the Electoral Tribunal and the judiciary. Many safe constituencies were created for the ruling parties, and rural and sparsely populated ­areas are now massively over-represented in parliament.

Nonetheless, the government did not achieve a two-thirds majority in parliament. Therefore, it will have to reach agreement with the opposition on appointing Supreme Court judges, the attorney general and the president of the Court of Auditors; as well as for important laws.

The new parliament will be constituted on 5 January. Until then, the National Assembly will sit in its previous composition. During that time, the government has the opportunity to press on with its socialist “Bolivarian revolution of the 21st century”.

Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez said ahead of the elections that he will accelerate his revolution after 27 September. He has the opportunity to obtain an empowerment act from the National Assembly or to push through the authorisation of parallel administrative institutions, both of which would mean that Venezuela’s Constitution is no longer worth the paper on which it is written. Using newly-created institutions, Chávez will attempt to circumvent possible parliamentary obstacles in the future.

Venezuela is a country with deep so­cial divisions. Chávez is adept at promoting himself as the champion of the poor, which continue to ensure a considerable share of the votes for his coalition, albeit in falling numbers. The opposition has struggled in the past to come up with social-policy ­initiatives of its own that might link it to the lower half of the population.

The opposition's arguments are constitutionally correct, but that will not do. It has recently won governor elections in populous parts of the country. Their success shows that only constructive answers to the burning social issues will generate electoral majorities and curb the president with his authoritarian tendencies.