What started with the defeat of Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro in the December 6, 2015 legislative election has turned into a full fledged attempt to consolidate power by president Maduro. The Venezuelan government has recently pushed forward the 2018 presidential elections. The elections, generally held in December, have been moved forward to April. I argue that this move, which has been labeled as a move toward more contestable and “prompt elections” by the reigning government, is in reality the biggest example of Venezuela’s democratic erosion.
Democratic backsliding has been a problem in Venezuela for the entirety of the 21st century. Back in the 1990’s populist leader Hugo Chavez was able to use the “voice of the people” in order to gain the presidency. Claiming that he was representing the people, Chavez slowly eroded democratic institutions in Venezuela. Under Chavez, who was president from 1999 until his death in 2013, Venezuela suffered under authoritarian-like policies. After Chavez’s death in 2013, his successor Nicolas Maduro took over and implemented many similar policies. The Venezuelan public was hopeful in December 2015 when the opposition was able to finally gain a majority in the legislation. The opposition saw the loss of Maduro’s government as a signal that the regime was coming to an end. Maduro then focused his strengths on trying to retain power. His actions following the election shocked the opposition. The government began to fill the Venezuelan supreme court (the Supreme Tribunal of Justice or TSJ) with allies. The TSJ began to strip the opposition of its majority. In early 2016, the court stripped several opposition lawmakers of their seats, citing “voting irregularities”. This prevented a supermajority in the National Assembly, something that would have given the opposition power over Maduro. The TSJ continued to take powers away from the National Assembly, simultaneously giving Maduro more executive power. Examples of this power exchange include the court stripping the National Assembly the power to review budget, leaving the country’s money in charge of Maduro (NY Times). His biggest move at consolidating power came from his 2017 call for a constituent assembly, in order to rewrite the country’s constitution. This move which he claimed “was needed to restore peace and stop his political opponents from trying to carry out a coup.” (USA Today) ultimately gave him authoritarian power over the country. Now, just one year later, Maduro is trying to secure yet another presidential term, strengthening his hold on the presidency for six more years.
Maduro’s call to move up the election is posing just as big a threat to democracy as his actions in the last few years. Maduro’s big claim is that moving up the elections will allow for prompt and fair elections in a time of need. Venezuela, currently experiencing widespread food shortages and triple digit inflation is in need of a stable leader. Maduro’s government argues that the quicker the new president is elected, the quicker the country will be able to face off against these problems. In reality the current chaos in Venezuela will make it harder for opposition party members campaign, and to get voters to the polls. In addition to moving up the election, Maduro is using other executive powers and influence to rig the vote even further. According to the LA Times, the TSJ has barred the main opposition party from even appearing on the ballot, a move that has been criticized by the opposition and even the international community.
Maduro’s election policies is the biggest move Venezuela has taken towards authoritarianism since Chavez took over. His actions break every rule in the game and according to Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, Maduro would be considered an authoritarian ruler. In their book How Democracies Die, Levitsky and Ziblatt outline a “litmus test” for identifying authoritarian rulers. There are four warning signs to look at:
- When a politician rejects either through words or actions the democratic rules of the game.
- When a politician denies the legitimacy of opponents.
- When a politician tolerates or encourages violence.
- When a politician indicates a willingness to curtail the civil liberties of opponents
With this recent move of rigging the elections, Maduro meets all four of those criteria. By ignoring the given date of elections and holding them when he pleases, he is rejecting the democratic rules of Venezuela. The lockup of leaders of opposition parties shows he is denying their legitimacy as political opponents. The use of force to exile or capture political enemies shows his toleration of violence. Blocking an entire party from being on the ballot curtails the civil liberties of an entire group of people.
Maduro’s election plans are the largest example of democratic backsliding in South America, and should serve as a warning to the world that Venezuela is heading down a path of authoritarianism. Unless foreign countries are able to intervene and help Venezuela hold legitimate and fair elections, Maduro may tighten his hold on the country and take the country deeper into authoritarian territory.
Daniel Ziblatt and Steven Levitsky: How Democracies Die