Venezuela’s opposition leaders are ecstatic about the results of Sunday’s legislative elections, which dealt a heavy blow to President Hugo Chavez. But they should get ready for Chavez’s counterattack. It will come soon, and it will be nasty.
Judging from what I hear from former close Chavez aides and other well-placed analysts, he is likely to circumvent the results of Sunday’s vote by pulling several tricks to consolidate his powers ahead of the 2012 presidential election.
On paper, Chavez won Sunday’s election by obtaining 98 seats in the National Assembly, while the opposition won 65.
But according to opposition counts, anti-Chavez and independent candidates received 52 percent of the popular vote despite Chavez’s massive use of government resources, virtual control of most electronic media and widespread intimidation.
“This will have a gigantic impact,” anti-Chavez leader and congresswoman-elect Maria Corina Machado told me in a telephone interview. “What was at stake last Sunday was whether a terrified society that feared all kinds of punishments if it didn’t vote for Chavez would overcome its fear. And people did overcome their fears!”
Opposition leaders stress that Chavez’s 33-seat majority in the National Assembly will be exclusively due to rules that were heavily tilted to favor government candidates. Pro-Chavez states like Amazonas could elect one legislator with just 20,000 voters, while anti-Chavez states such as Zulia required 400,000 votes to elect one legislator.
Still, the opposition carried several former Chavez strongholds, including the Caracas district of Libertador, where the presidential palace is located. Nationally, Chavez got 5.4 million votes, way below the 7.3 million votes he received in the 2006 presidential elections and 17 percent fewer votes than he got in a 2009 referendum.
Still, there are several scenarios under which Chavez could bend Venezuelan laws — as he has often done — to maintain his near absolute powers:
l Scenario 1: Chavez uses the outgoing National Assembly, which he fully controls until the newly elected legislators take their seats on Jan. 5, to pass an “enabling law” that grants him extraordinary temporary powers. He and previous Venezuelan presidents have done this.
l Scenario 2: The new National Assembly takes office Jan. 5. and Chavez no longer enjoys a two-thirds majority to rule at his will. But Chavez, through vote buying or intimidation, gets the votes he needs to get the new congress to pass an “enabling law.”
l Scenario 3: Chavez asks the Supreme Court, which he controls, to issue a ruling scrapping the two-thirds vote requirement and to allow him to pass key laws by a simple majority vote.
l Scenario 4: Chavez gives legislative powers to pro-government community councils, in effect stripping away the powers from the National Assembly.
He has done something similar before: When opposition Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma won in the 2008 elections, Chavez created an office of super-mayor of Caracas, appointed a loyalist to head it and shifted most of the opposition-held mayoral office’s duties and budget to the new office.
Will Chavez bend the laws to strip the elected National Assembly of its powers, the way he did with the Caracas mayoral office, I asked Ledezma this week. The opposition mayor said it’s going to be much more difficult for Chavez to do it because Venezuelans and the rest of the world would see it as a “self-coup.”
“It’s a different circumstance: Since Sunday, there is a new political map in Venezuela,” Ledezma said. “Now, the opposition won a majority of the national vote.”
My opinion: Venezuela’s opposition has not been as strong — and Chavez as weak — since the beginning of his presidency. But Chavez is likely to once again bend the Venezuelan Constitution, which he himself drafted, to maintain his populist authoritarian rule.
He is a military man at heart. He has publicly said from day one that he doesn’t believe in representative democracy, but in his own brand of “participatory” democracy.
There is little question that Chavez will use the Supreme Court and other government branches that he controls to try to void the new National Assembly’s opposition bloc of its powers. The only question is whether the international community will look the other way and allow him to get away with it.
— Andres Oppenheimer is a Latin America correspondent for the Miami Herald. firstname.lastname@example.org