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Elections a Blow for Chávez?

Author: Joel D. Hirst, International Affairs Fellow in Residence, 2010-2011
September 27, 2010


The results of yesterday's Venezuelan National Assembly elections have dramatically altered the country's political landscape, sharply curtailing the power of President Hugo Chávez and inserting into government politicians not openly hostile to the United States. With a voter turnout of 66 percent, the opposition, Table for Democratic Unity (MUD), secured sixty-one seats while the government held onto ninety-four seats (with several still undergoing vote counting). This result has effectively robbed Chávez of the two-thirds majority he needs to pass "organic" laws--sweeping laws requiring an absolute majority. Since the defeat of his constitutional reform in 2007, Chávez has been using these laws, passed through the 100 percent Chavista National Assembly, to advance his Bolivarian Revolution and deepen his socialist project.

Chávez also has lost his ability to modify the constitution or call a constituent assembly. The multi-party assembly will also be able to influence the budgeting process, under which Chávez has been funneling 25 percent of the windfall oil revenue into a presidential discretionary account. This increased oversight will slow the financing he needs to expand twenty-first century Socialism at home and abroad, and will complicate his relationship with ALBA countries that rely heavily on Venezuelan money.

Even more significant is that the MUD collected 52 percent of the popular vote, placing it firmly as the primary political force in the country. This is nothing short of an unmitigated disaster for Chávez in an election billed by the opposition and the government as a referendum on Chávez and his Bolivarian Revolution. Looking toward the 2012 presidential elections, Chávez and his party now represent a minority despite the apparatus of the state and the handouts of thousands of electro-domestics and food stamps in the last days of the campaign.

Chávez has some difficult decisions ahead. He could take a softer approach to his often bombastic rhetoric and attempt to build governing coalitions with the newly elected MUD representatives. Conversely, he could attempt to undermine the newly elected assembly by passing additional sweeping laws in the remaining three months of the sitting assembly, while creating an atmosphere of conflict when the new representatives take their positions at the beginning of the year.

For the United States, the result is welcome. Though Chávez had stressed the need for continuity to counter expected aggression by "the empire," the results show a diminished appetite for anti-American rhetoric. The peaceful, representative, and--at least on election day--fair result reinforces the message of the United States: that conflicts should be solved democratically. Friendlier faces within the government could improve the ability of the United States to increase dialogue and coordination on issues of mutual interest.

Chávez's own words may hold the answer. At 3:38 a.m., after the National Electoral Council announced the results, Chávez declared on his official Twitter account that the government had obtained a "solid victory, sufficient to continue deepening the democratic, Bolivarian socialism."

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