When a national leader like Hugo Chávez wins an election, there are few outside observers who are very surprised and most of them are skeptical about the final results. But, even though Chávez rules like a dictator over his people, democratic institutions do exist in Venezuela. That is, even though Chávez has used his power as President to amass large amounts of power, there was a real Presidential campaign this year, and democracy does exist in that country, though it may be imperfect.
To be sure, Chávez has accrued massive power and influence, which gave him an immense advantage in the Presidential race. He has centralized the government and controls almost every branch of it. He owns almost every television station in the country and even has his own program. A large chunk of the state’s oil revenue goes into a personal account of his, and he has had political opponents arrested. And, on top of all that, the President’s term has been extended to six years and term limits have been abolished. Chávez can now be President for life.
Despite this, there was an opposition party and it did very well; Chávez got only 55% of the vote. Of course, modern dictators are too savvy to give themselves mandates of around 99%, but you would think he could have done better. This narrow victory also comes five years after Venezuelans voted in a referendum against constitutional changes supported by Chávez. He can lose.
There were some concerns about vote tampering. Voters had to register their name on an electronic device before voting, raising concerns that these devices would record who voted for whom – though, in reality, this concern was unfounded. On the other hand, Jimmy Carter called the Venezuelan election process “the best in the world.” Chávez wasn’t relying on old-school tactics like ballot-stuffing and vote-rigging.
But now comes the real test. The voting process may have been fair, but the advantages Chávez had over his opponents in spreading his message certainly weren’t, which still calls into question the legitimacy of a Chávez Presidency. How will the opposition react? They aren’t under any illusions that they don’t operate in a rigged system, but I think they see that their best chances lie in operating within that system.
The important thing, though, is that as imperfect as Venezuelan democracy is, it does exist. The problem is that democracy isn’t easy, and Venezuela is relatively new at this. A mature democracy, for example, has safeguards to prevent egomaniacs from taking complete control of the country. There’s a learning process, and it takes a long time. It’s not like we’ve perfected democracy, ourselves.