A check on Chavez

Los Angeles Times - - Opinion -

The re­sults of Venezuela’s Na­tional Assem­bly elec­tions this week demon­strate once again that it is wise for op­po­si­tion groups to par­tic­i­pate in po­lit­i­cal com­pe­ti­tions, even when the odds are heav­ily stacked against them. In 2005, op­po­nents of Pres­i­dent Hugo Chavez tried to dis­credit the Assem­bly elec­tion by boy­cotting it, leav­ing the arena to the pop­ulist leader’s loy­al­ists. This time, they ran can­di­dates un­der the ban­ner of the Ta­ble for Demo­cratic Unity and won 61 of the 165 Assem­bly seats, deny­ing Chavez the two-thirds ma­jor­ity he had used to re­write fun­da­men­tal laws, ap­point Supreme Court jus­tices and con­sol­i­date power. This is good news for Venezuela and sets a more com­pet­i­tive stage for the 2012 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion.

As with ev­ery re­cent vote in Venezuela, Sun­day’s amounted to a ref­er­en­dum on Chavez and the so­cial­ist agenda he calls the Bo­li­var­ian Revo­lu­tion. Nearly 11mil­lion Venezue­lans cast bal­lots, about 66% of the elec­torate. De­spite the coun­try’s high vi­o­lent crime rate, 30% in­fla­tion and gen­eral eco­nomic malaise, Chavez’s bloc held onto a ma­jor­ity; he re­tains a sub­stan­tial fol­low­ing thanks to free health clin­ics, sub­si­dized food mar­kets and a re­duced poverty rate. The op­po­si­tion, mean­while, was able to win more than a third of the seats in the Assem­bly de­spite elec­toral ger­ry­man­der­ing that gave more weight to ru­ral ar­eas sup­port­ive of Chavez, govern­ment hand­outs to vot­ers and con­trol of most me­dia. Both sides claimed a ma­jor­ity of the pop­u­lar vote; ei­ther way, the re­sults sug­gest that roughly half the coun­try is fed up with all Chavez all the time.

The next two years are likely to be as rocky as the last sev­eral. Chavez won a ref­er­en­dum in 2009 elim­i­nat­ing pres­i­den­tial term lim­its and is gear­ing up to run for a third six-year term. He has not demon­strated en­thu­si­asm for a level play­ing field, and could use the com­ing months to crack down on op­po­nents, as he has in the past, and re­sort to fur­ther trick­ery to un­der­mine the elec­toral process. But now at least the op­po­si­tion has a plat­form in a mul­ti­party Assem­bly to block con­sti­tu­tional changes, over­see spend­ing of the coun­try’s oil rev­enues and put for­ward an al­ter­na­tive agenda. The elec­tion should re­turn some badly needed checks and bal­ances to the Venezue­lan po­lit­i­cal sys­tem. In the process, we hope both sides will seek di­a­logue over con­fronta­tion.

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