Snatching Despotism from the Jaws of Democracy – Venezuela Continues to Worsen
By: Cae Odell
On December 6th, 2015, President Nicolas Maduro of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela was elected as President of one of the richest and most prosperous countries in South and Central America. It was widely believed that President Maduro would carry on the policies and beliefs of the Chavismo revolution that his late-predecessor Hugo Chavez had integrated into the fabric of Venezuelan political culture.
Since taking office in 2015, President Maduro has almost single handedly led his country into a state of hyperinflation, which has been predicted to reach between 950-1000% by the end of 2017. Tensions have undoubtedly risen in the last month thanks in part President’s inability to address the growing humanitarian issues such as wide-spread food shortages and medical supplies. Claims of rampant corruption among political and military elites have exacerbated feelings of resentment and mistrust among the citizens of Venezuela towards their government and currently, President Maduro encouraged this mistrust by taking a very heavy-handed approach to the country’s political system in hopes of creating a new form of government designed to prolong his time in power indefinitely.
Opposition parties confronted Maduro hoping to stall or disrupt his plans of turning the Venezuelan government into a ruling authoritarian regime. In October of 2016, President Maduro’s opponents tried to organize a referendum to recall the President in hopes of triggering a new presidential election that would take place during the first quarter of 2017. The opposition party – Democratic Unity Roundtable (DUR) could gather voter signatures from October 26th-28th. In this short time, they were required to gather 20% of Venezuela’s electorate in each of Venezuela’s 23 states in order to hold their referendum. The DUP was strongly opposed to the requirement, stating that they should only be required to collect signatures from 20% of the voter roll nationwide, since many of the states and municipalities are scattered in remote locations throughout the country. Further frustration and criticism arose among members of the opposition when the Government only provided 5,400 voting machines when the opposition party requested 20,000 to effectively pursue their goal. With a lack of materials and an even less support from governmental authorities the effort failed.
DUP frustration compounded when President Maduro announced his intention to hold an electoral process to replace and restructure the Venezuelan General Assembly. The 545-member Assembly serves as Venezuela’s Congress. Out of the total 545 seats, 364 of seats will be filled by candidates elected from geographical areas throughout the country. One member will be voted to represent each municipality and two more from each municipality that is a state capital. In addition to the 364 seats 8 seats will be filled by Indigenous leaders, and 173 seats will be selected by various agencies and social groups. These 173 seats are divided into the seven categories and will have a select amount representatives who will represent each working sector:
– 8 for Campesinos and Fishers
– 5 for Business
– 5 for Disabilities
– 24 for Students/Education
– 28 for Pensioners
– 24 for Communal Councils
– 79 for Workers
The workers’ sector is further broken down into nine sub-categories of the most prominent employments sectors throughout Venezuela.
– 17 Public Administration
– 14 for the Service sector
– 12 for the Social areas
– 11 for Commerce
– 11 for Self-employed
– 6 for Industry
– 4 for Construction
– 2 for the Oil Industry
– 2 for Transportation
The sectoral vote has become an iconic and widely criticized component of Venezuela’s electoral process. The idea behind the sectoral vote was developed by former President Hugo Chavez who hoped that the process would deepen the public’s participation in democracy. The criticism stems from the idea that 173 members of the Assembly will put into positions of power by private entities. These 173 members are not subjected to public scrutiny and are not required to campaign for the public’s approval and vote, but are instead selected by constituencies and popular social groups.
While 364 seats were filled by candidates who ran public campaigns, 173 seats of the total 545 seats, were filled by officials elected by constituencies and social groups. The 173 appointed officials have openly praised and offered support to President Maduro. This has raised the question as to whether these officials were chosen on their merit or whether they would represent the political ambitions of President Maduro.
Of the 173 officials were elected to the General Assembly is Cilia Flores: President Maduro’s wife, and Nicolás Maduro Guerra: their son. After the announcement from President Maduro that his wife and son would be serving as active members on the Assembly council was fast met by criticism from opponents of the opposition parties and members from the international community claiming that President Maduro is acting solely on self-preservation and self-interest.
After the vote on July 30th, streets across the city of Caracas were filled with rioters protesting the outcome and fairness of the vote. Rioters claimed that President Maduro had used his position as President to fill the majority of the Assembly seats with Pro-Chavismo members who would support his desire to rewrite the country’s national constitution 72 hours after the vote took place.
President Maduro’s ultimate aim for restructuring Venezuela’s General Assembly is believed to be his desire to rewrite the National Constitution in hopes of avoiding the up-coming 2019 election and quite possibly any future election beyond that. When Maduro announced the Assembly vote he claimed that the new constitution that would be written by members of the new Assembly would bring peace to Venezuela and in a speech, he said he aimed to “let the sovereign people impose peace, harmony and true national dialogue.”
While there are only few available specifics about what the future constitution will include, it is widely believed that President Maduro will use his influence over supporting members of the Assembly to target members of the Democratic Unity Roundtable (DUR) party and other opposition parties, all-the-while creating laws to further tighten his grip on the country. Citizens of Venezuela have spoken out against the President, making claims that the President will act to silence critics and remove the few remaining checks and balances left. The words of the first lady did no help when Cilia Flores was quoted saying: “The new General Assembly will create peace and justice commissions to ensure that those responsible for the current political upheaval will pay and learn their lesson.”
Since taking the role as President, Nicolas Maduro has led his country into a state of hyperinflation, failed to address the growing humanitarian issues such as the national shortage of food and medical supplies, and has repeatedly sought to oppress civilians by means of violence. President Maduro’s political ambitions have put the country of Venezuela on track to joining the authoritarian ranks of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey, who recently has passed a similar referendum in Turkey that has removed the power from both the parliament and the supreme court while expanding the power of his executive branch. But unlike the autocrats who came before him, President Maduro may find that his ambitions are beyond his grasp in the coming weeks.
Cae Odell is an editorial assistant for Ramen IR. Cae is currently working on his undergraduate degree at Boise State University with a double major in linguistics and political science with a dual minor in philosophy and non-profit management. His writings have focused on a range of issues including Britain and the European Union, political philosophy, and American public policy.
Photo by: Wikimedia Commons