Hugo Chávez’s Upcoming Test: A Preview of Venezuela’s September 26 Elections

Venezuelan politics have become increasingly polarized during President Hugo Chávez’s twelve years in office. The upcoming National Assembly elections are no exception, especially as the results are expected to be an important measure of the nation’s political pulse. On September 26, Venezuelans will go to the polls in a legislative election that many view as a national referendum on President Chávez and his controversial Bolivarian Revolution. This referendum is made even more significant by the fact that in just two years, Chávez himself will be up for reelection. According to a statement released by the Venezuelan Embassy, 6,428 candidates from 186 political parties are slated to participate. Having boycotted the 2005 National Assembly elections, the opposition coalition, known as the Coalition for Democratic Unity (MUD), now seeks to wrest a majority of seats from Chávez’s United Venezuela Socialist Party (PSUV), which currently controls 82 percent of the legislature.

While the extreme polarization of Venezuelan media and society undoubtedly affects the reliability of polling data, both pro-government and opposition sources indicate that the election will be close. According to the latest reports from Venezuelan polling companies Datanálisis and GIS XXI, the PSUV is slightly ahead, projected to receive 52 percent of the votes over the opposition’s 48 percent.

As established by the 1999 Bolivarian Constitution created under Chávez, the unicameral Venezuelan Congress is made up of a total of 165 seats. Voters directly elect 110 representatives to the National Assembly, while 52 of the remaining 55 representatives are to be chosen via a proportional party list system (the final 3 seats are reserved for indigenous representation). The majority of Venezuelan laws currently require two-thirds majority approval from the National Assembly. Accordingly, for Chávez to continue down his current path without significant obstruction from the opposition, the PSUV must hold on to a total of 110 seats. Given the number of seats that Chávez’s PSUV is proportionally guaranteed by the list system, the opposition will need to win a minimum of 57 out of the 110 directly determined seats in order to amount to more than just a token thorn in the president’s side.

Despite its marginal projected advantage, the PSUV will be heading into the elections with a number of strikes against it, including a recent economic recession, frequent power outages, spiraling rates of violent crime, and Chávez’s lowest approval ratings since at least 2003. During the 2005 legislative elections, Chávez enjoyed a reported approval rating of 70 percent. In contrast, according to an August 2010 survey by the same source, polling agency Consultores 21, Chávez must contend with a record-low 36 percent approval going into the election on Sunday. Though polling agencies traditionally tied to the government, such as GIS XXI, reported much higher approval ratings, both in 2005 and today, their numbers nonetheless reflect the same downward trend in Chávez’s overall popularity.

Chávez supporters both within and outside Venezuela have long accused the United States of interfering in Venezuelan elections and funding the opposition through grants from organizations such as the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and USAID. NED-issued guidelines state that their grantees are not allowed to use funding to support any particular political candidate over another. Historically, however, NED funds marked for Venezuela have tended to end up in the hands of organizations widely recognized as part of the anti-Chávez opposition. One of the most controversial of these was a 2003 grant of $53,400 to Súmate, an anti-Chávez organization dedicated to the coordination of an unsuccessful recall referendum on Chávez’s presidency in 2004. Given the United States’ troubled history with Venezuela’s incumbent president, a substantial victory for the opposition in the upcoming elections is likely to raise even more questions regarding the magnitude of U.S. involvement in Venezuela’s internal affairs.

The increasing tension and uncertainty leading up to the elections is compounded by the absence of a diverse body of international election observers. In contrast to 2005, the Organization of American States (OAS), the UN, and the Carter Center were not invited to observe the upcoming elections. According to the Wall Street Journal, Venezuelans on both sides of the political spectrum have expressed concern that the results of Sunday’s election may spark a violent reaction in the nation’s capital. Cardinal Jorge Urosa, the Archbishop of Caracas and a frequent critic of Chávez, has called for both parties to accept the results of the legislative elections peacefully, whatever they may be.

6 thoughts on “Hugo Chávez’s Upcoming Test: A Preview of Venezuela’s September 26 Elections

  • September 24, 2010 at 8:55 pm

    COHA fails to mention that the Electoral Law enacted in August 2009 violates the constitutional precept of proportionality; instead it enacts a quasi-majority system. If the opposition garners 48% of the vote, chances are that it will fail to win the 56 seats (34%) in the National Assembly required to approve "Organic" Laws, name the Supreme Court justices and the directors of the National Elections Council.
    In Addition, the constitution allows the Assembly to "enable" the president to legislate by himself; to "enable" the president the Assembly needs 60% of the votes. To block this the opposition needs to win 67 votes.
    We all hope that the election will happen peacefully and all parties will accept the results, but the Venezuelan people will continue to ask themselves how to limit Chavez, as the results of the election will probably fail to achieve this.

  • September 25, 2010 at 4:45 pm

    Ms. Reed, please tell us when Venezuelan politics have not been polarized. Maybe in 1989 when the military under Pérez slaughtered demonstrators opposing the neoliberal policies 'recommended' by the IMF?

    Increasing polarization? In 2002 the anti-democratic 'democrats' tried to overthrow Chavez? Could the polarization now be worse than then?

    Why is it so difficult to admit that US funding of opposition organizations in Venezuela is not meddling? Even if the US government funds laundered through the NED and its affiliated organizations are not spent directly for electoral purposes, they are still used to strengthen and expand the opposition.

    Is this something that the US government would allow here? Of course not! But why is it so difficult to admit we shouldn't be doing there?

    The US government does not care about democratic institutions abroad and anyone who disagree only needs to consider the major US "allies" and recipients of military 'aid' – Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The US government is considered about access to markets and the ability to exploit them.

    The US has a long and disgusting history of conspiring against elected democratic governments around the world, but especially in Latin America. Patriotic Venezuelans should be outraged by the attempt of the US to influence the political destiny of their country in order to exploit its people and resources.

    • September 28, 2010 at 9:14 am

      Here in Nicaragua Chavez has sent over a billion dollars directly to the personal bank account of Daniel Ortega to fund Ortega"s goal of turning this poor country into a Cuban style police state.
      Venezuela bought channel 8 to disburse propaganda to the Nicaraguan people. Would you call this "meddling?" I could imagine your outrage if the U.S. had sent a billion dollars to the private bank account of President Uribe in Colombia and bought a T.V. station in Bogota.
      Do the words " Cognitive Dissonance " ring a bell?
      Viva la Revolution!

  • September 25, 2010 at 8:47 pm

    Nobody ever praised a 'revolutionary regime' for economic management. When you have Fidel Castro on your economic team there is bound to be some serious fiscal repercussions.

  • September 26, 2010 at 10:48 am

    How would a surge in the MUD in Venezuela alter relations with Washington if a GOP landslide does actually occur this November?

    • September 28, 2010 at 9:18 am

      Their will be a landslide in Nov. in the U.S. The citizens of my country dont like Socialismo any better than the Cuban people. But at least we have the vote- which Castro has never allowed the people of Cuba.


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