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Monday, Oct. 11, 2010


Mr. Chavez meets opposition

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's Socialist Party won a majority of votes and seats in parliamentary elections held Sept. 26. But the margin of that victory was considerably smaller than those of the past, and his opponents are claiming that they are the big winners in the ballot.

Mr. Chavez lost the unassailable majority he held in the legislature and, in theory, will be forced to negotiate with the opposition. In fact, Mr. Chavez has shown little patience for such niceties and has, when challenged, demonstrated a preference for running around constitutional hurdles, rather than working through them.

Mr. Chavez has been pressing his "Bolivarian Revolution" since he took power over a decade ago. The former army lieutenant colonel has championed a nationalist- populist-socialist domestic agenda and ridden opposition to U.S. policies to regional and international prominence.

His popularity has fluctuated: While the poor of Venezuela — and there are a lot — have backed Mr. Chavez's efforts to break the grip of elites on the country, his policies have proven less effective in delivering on the promise of equality and opportunity. Venezuela has a skyrocketing crime rate, high inflation, low growth and rampant corruption. Even with its substantial oil reserves — the foundation of Mr. Chavez's domestic and international stature — the economy is foundering.

But Mr. Chavez has been fortunate to face an opposition that is deeply divided and tactically incompetent. In the last election, held in 2005, the opposition boycotted the ballot, letting the president and his allies take an overwhelming majority in the legislature. By controlling more than two-thirds of the seats, Mr. Chavez could rewrite laws that checked his power, rule by decree and appoint allies throughout the government without fear of opposition. Not surprisingly he consolidated his power and those of his allies.

This time, the opposition learned from its mistakes and put up a single slate of candidates for the elections. Whether that unity will last until the 2012 presidential ballot — at which time a single opposition candidate is a necessary condition for the opposition to even have a chance — is uncertain.

In the most recent ballot, two-thirds of voters turned out to give Mr. Chavez's party 98 of the 165 seats in the National Assembly. The opposition coalition claimed 65 seats and a splinter party of the left claimed the last two seats. The popular vote was neatly split, with the ruling party winning 5.4 million and the opposition taking 5.3 million. The opposition is claiming that it in fact won a majority, but there is no evidence of significant fraud. Their claims that districts have been gerrymandered and that new voting rules gave more representation to rural districts where Mr. Chavez is most popular are harder to dismiss.

Mr. Chavez has said that it is positive that the opposition "accepted the rules of the game" and participated in the vote. The question, though, is whether the president is inclined to do the same. The opposition claims that it will use its presence to demand more say in governance, and begin the process of re-creating checks and balances in Venezuela. Mr. Chavez has demonstrated precious little tolerance for checks and balances and the obstruction of his wishes. For him, politics is a battlefield, not a place for compromise.

When an opposition candidate won a mayoral election in Caracas, the National Assembly promptly stripped him of his power and made him subordinate to a new officer appointed directly by the president. Opposition governors say the same has been done to them.

With the president and his allies occupying every major institution in the country, in particular the supreme court, and a legislature that can pass most laws by a simple majority, it will be difficult for the opposition to mount a real challenge to the president. The new National Assembly is not seated until January, so the president and his allies may act now to consolidate their position.

Venezuela's future depends on three factors. The first is Mr. Chavez's ability to genuinely improve the lives of ordinary Venezuelans. The president rose to power on a populist tide, and his longevity has been buttressed by funds generated by the country's oil reserves. But even that great wealth has been unable to compensate for inefficiency, mismanagement and corruption. His promises of a better life sound increasingly empty to growing numbers of Venezuelans. Two successive election results — the Sept. 26 ballot and the defeat of a constitutional reform referendum in 2007 — suggest the clock is ticking.

The second factor is the ability of the opposition to unify against the president. While he attracts powerful opposition, Mr. Chavez remains the most popular politician in the country. He retains strong and motivated supporters among the country's poorest inhabitants.

At some point, the opposition must reach out to them and promise that its policies will improve their lives. Politics as usual — the ongoing division of the country into haves and have-nots — is not an option for Venezuela.

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