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Opposition Challenges for Chávez

Interviewee: Michael McCarthy, Doctoral Candidate in Political Science, Johns Hopkins University
Interviewer: Aimee Rawlins, Copy Editor, CFR.org
September 23, 2010

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Venezuela holds elections for its National Assembly on September 26, where all 165 seats will be in play between President Hugo Chávez's Socialist Party and the multiparty opposition's Coalition for Democratic Unity. Though Chávez's party has held an overwhelming majority for the last five years -- the opposition pulled out of the 2005 elections because they anticipated fraud and didn't want to give legitimacy to Chávez's regime--the opposition now hopes to win over 50 percent of the popular vote and break Chávez's two-thirds majority in the assembly. "The opposition is going to have a much bigger voice in day-to-day legislative affairs, which is going to produce a major test for Venezuelan political institutions," says expert Michael McCarthy, a former visiting scholar at the Universidad Central de Venezuela. This election will be a precursor to the 2012 presidential elections, with observers using the turnout to predict if the possibility of a post-Chávez future is a real one. McCarthy adds that in Bolivia and Ecuador, where leftist governments are also in power, the Venezuelan elections could show opposition parties that "playing by the rules of the game gives you a voice in politics and helps you create a more pluralistic political system."

In 2002, you co-authored an article that said if Chávez was forced out of Venezuelan politics, he would become a martyr and the Chavismo would carry on regardless. Is this still true?

One of the biggest political mistakes made by the opposition is that they have not recognized support for Chávez as a sociopolitical pattern that transcends the man of Chávez. That has come back to haunt them in the sense that they try and discredit many of the initiatives that Chávez promotes, conflating the man and the policies. This gives the impression that the opposition reflexively opposes any Chavista initiative, which is a problem, because a significant portion of the electorate does not see all the government's ideas as bad. This produces credibility problems for the opposition as a political alternative. So the opposition has had a very difficult time winning over parts of the population for the first six or seven years of the Chávez period, starting in 1999. It's now beginning to address that deficit.

What is the potential for fraud in these elections?

The possibility of fraud is low, but anything can happen. However, it is important to note that the [national] electoral council (CNE) plans to audit 54 percent of voting centers, a pretty significant number, to check for irregularities. The concern is less about old-fashioned ballot-stuffing than it is about how either side will react to the results and whether there exists separation of powers between the CNE and other parts of the state to guarantee ballot secrecy.

The United States has to take a quiet backseat in this election, as it should, because it still has egg on its face from its role in the 2002 [attempted] coup against Chávez.

The other regional issue is that the Organization of American States is not going to be participating as an observer of this election. There will be international observers, but not from a particular multilateral organization. This has been a somewhat controversial issue. There are also going to be domestic electoral observers from civil society. There are concerns about fraud, as always in Latin America. The Venezuelan electoral system, in terms of confidence in the vote itself, is very high. And we can expect massive participation on Sunday--very high levels of turnout for a legislative election--well over 50 percent.

Regionally, this is going to show that Venezuelan politics is more than just about Chávez and Chavismo, and it therefore is going to make things more interesting for other places in Latin America where left governments are in power. It will perhaps embolden some of the groups that are opposed to other leftist presidents to participate as legitimate opposition forces in Bolivia and in Ecuador. One of the possible positive outcomes of an election in which people respect the results--like in Venezuela with a pluralistic assembly--is that elsewhere in Latin America where there are leftist political governments in power, [the opposition learns that] playing by the rules of the game gives you a voice in politics and helps you create a more pluralistic political system.

There's been a lot written about inflation, high crime rates (Reuters), and food shortages. Does the public care about these issues?

The issues vary based on the geographical location. In urban areas, the issues you have just listed seem to be getting more traction among voters. In rural areas, the opposition basically does not exist on the political map. There, the issue seems to be the existence of a strong political force in the form of Chávez's party, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela, and the lack of an alternative. In urban areas, it's a more competitive political landscape, so bread-and-butter issues like the ones you've mentioned--public security, food, cost of living--allow people to make a more programmatic choice between the parties.

Is the United States invested in this election or taking a quiet backseat?

The United States has to take a quiet backseat in this election, as it should, because it still has egg on its face from its role in the 2002 [attempted] coup against Chávez. [A briefly successful government takeover by a rightist businessman in 2002 was supported by the United States, which became a political liability when Chávez returned to power two days later.] It's obvious who it supports in this election and in Venezuelan politics. That remains a problem for the legitimacy of U.S. foreign policy in Venezuela, because it's clearly biased in one way. I don't know how they can change that since Chávez likes depicting himself as involved in a David-against-Goliath struggle.

How much does oil dependency come into play in the U.S.-Venezuela relationship?

Oil dependency is a source of stability in the U.S.-Venezuelan relationship. A lot is made out of the microphone diplomacy, from Chávez toward the United States and vice versa from the State Department and other U.S. officials. But the reality is that between 10 percent and 13 percent of U.S. oil still comes from Venezuela, and Venezuela has, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, the second largest reserves of oil in the world. So I don't see there being any change on that issue in the near to medium term.

Can you discuss some of the possible outcomes? For instance, if the opposition gets less than 50 percent of the popular vote? Or if they get more than 50 percent, but don't reach two-thirds? What does this mean for Venezuelan politics?

The opposition is going to have a much bigger voice in day-to-day legislative affairs, which is going to produce a major test for Venezuelan political institutions. We don't know what's going to happen when the polarization that now affects the country in the media takes place inside state institutions such as the Congress, because up until now the opposition has basically not existed in the Congress. Whether this will lead to legislative deadlock, we don't know. The opposition's game plan probably is to play defense against Chavista initiatives. For the opposition, playing defense is offense.

The opposition is cobbled together from various parties and viewpoints. Even if they get over 50 percent of the vote and are able to block or slow down Chávez's socialist agenda, do they have issues of their own they would focus on? Or is it primarily just playing defense?

Beyond playing defense against Chávez, which the opposition has gotten better at since it decided to play by the constitutional rules of the game, the other important trend in Venezuelan politics is the rebirth of political parties. The Venezuelan political system between 1998 and 2006 was a landscape without political parties. Within the opposition, there are now many different political parties, and it makes it difficult to figure out what the agenda is, besides its anti-Chávez position. The role of uniting these different little parties in the opposition is very difficult. There still seems to be quite a bit of fragmentation within the opposition about what the political project is. This is understandable because the opposition is not homogenous; it's not just a right-wing group of people who hate Chávez because they think he's a crazy leftist. It's a bunch of different political positions concerned about the direction President Chávez is taking the country in.

Assuming the opposition breaks the Socialist Party's two-thirds majority, will the two parties be able to work together?

For the opposition, playing defense is offense. That is, for them, it's saving parts of the country that they believe Chávez is dismantling.

Based on public statements, one would say no, but then there's the reality of getting the job done. There might be a potential for cooperation between the opposition political parties and the government on the issue of public security, because the government has increasingly admitted the problems that it faces in terms of day-to-day citizen security. There's room for both sides to score points there. But on more ideological issues--the continuance of nationalization/appropriation of private business, laws having to do with Chávez's idea of popular power--I don't see too much room for cooperation.

Looking ahead to the presidential election in 2012, what impact might this weekend's elections have on Chávez?

They are a proxy of the upcoming presidential elections. People will be mostly looking at the percentage of people who voted for the Chavista block of political parties--there is more than one pro-Chávez party--and the opposition block of parties. Those percentages will be the way people make a decision about where the country is headed in terms of the possibility of a post-Chávez future come December 2012. It will also be a way for people in the opposition to have a sense of hope. There's a sense of desperation among the opposition population, especially in Caracas. And if they are able to get near 50 percent of the votes but not get a majority in the Assembly--which is, of course, a possibility in a proportional representation system--that would be very encouraging, because the presidential elections are based on the popular vote. They don't have an electoral college like the United States. It will also be interesting to see what numbers a third party, Patria Para Todos--which is neither pro- nor anti-Chávez--gets. The number of votes they receive could put a wedge between one of the political blocs getting a majority of the popular vote.

It's easy to see how Chávez's policies could get a poor populace rallied behind him.

Populism is usually reported in the press as either some charismatic leader performing magic, or from the left, progressive press, as the emergence of a grassroots revolution. Really, it's neither. It's a much more complicated phenomenon of a charismatic person engaging with a process of grassroots organization and trying to figure out a way of governing that gives credence to some of these utopian ideas about people's power.

Are the poor largely benefiting from Chávez's reforms and his views? Or has that lessened as his rule has continued?

The United Nations, through a number of its agencies, has documented significant progress in lowering inequality and reducing poverty during the Chávez period. However, support for Chávez is not only among the poor. I want to stress that the polarization of Venezuela is political; it's not class-based. People who are poor are in the opposition; people who are in the middle class are for the government. The support patterns cross class lines. Having said that, I'll go back to the United Nations' figures, which document progress in reducing inequality and poverty. This should be expected since Venezuela has gone through a major petro-boom in the past ten years. The revenue that it has gotten from oil prices is quite striking. In 2006, the state had more oil-based income than it's ever had, adjusted for inflation.

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