The re-election of Hugo Chávez “represents a serious challenge to what remains of Venezuela’s weakened institutional framework, and to the further erosion of political plurality,” says a prominent analyst.
Alternatively, chastised by a newly resurgent opposition and reportedly recovering from cancer, is Venezuela’s re-elected populist president likely to adopt more moderate policies?
“The answer is a resounding no, for some of Mr. Chávez’s electoral promises and past experience suggest that the president is likely to take an even more radical stance,” writes Federico Barriga, a Latin America analyst for the Economist Intelligence Unit.
“Most importantly, Venezuela might see the emergence of a “sub-system” of political and economic organizations that will grant the executive even greater power at the expense of institutional stability and political plurality,” he suggests.
Chávez is likely to target his critics and opponents “with various tactics and degrees of radicalism,” Barriga writes for the Huffington Post:
The local private sector is particularly vulnerable, as it already suffers from price and exchange controls and overregulation. Although a move to a fully state-controlled economic model is highly unlikely, expropriation would remain a constant threat…..
More challenging will be to reduce the influence of groups such as autonomous universities, student groups, NGOs and the church. In contrast to Venezuela’s traditional political parties, they have operated as an effective counterweight to chavista hegemony in the public sphere. To move definitively against any or all of them would be to take a more open authoritarian style, and it is uncertain whether Mr Chávez would be willing to risk making that step. Moreover, despite its recent withdrawal from the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights, Venezuela is still bound by constitutional and treaty commitments that are not so easy to evade, including those derived from its recent entry to the Mercosur trading bloc. That said, the government is still likely to use judicial intimidation and financial repression to reduce the sphere of influence of these groups.
Other observers agree that the regime is likely to become more authoritarian.
“Every time he’s won elections he’s tried to use it to claim a mandate,” said Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Council of the Americas. “It’s quite conceivable that he’ll try to implement his vision even quicker now because he’s not sure how long he’ll be around.”
Chavez, who has seized more than 1,000 companies or their assets since taking office, will probably now pursue more expropriations and extend state control over the economy, he said.
Opposition candidate Henrique Capriles was defeated despite running what analyst Moses Naim called a “perfect” campaign.
The democratic opposition was also unable to contend with Chávez’s abuse of state resources, observers suggest.
“I think he just cranked up the patronage machine and unleashed a spending orgy,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue think tank.
Chávez’s win will be a boost to Latin America’s illiberal forces, say observers.
“Raul Castro will be relieved that the approximately $4bn worth of subsidized oil that Cuba gets from Venezuela each year will continue,” while Argentina’s Cristina Fernández “will meanwhile be relieved to see that a populist president can prevail, despite a thwacked private sector,” writes the FT’s John Paul Rathbone.
“The first of the two big questions now facing Chávez is the Venezuelan economy,” he contends:
The vote-winning 30 per cent ramp up in government spending this year has opened up a fiscal deficit. Many expect a devaluation soon; the black market exchange rate is already four times the official fixed rate. It is Mr Chávez, the socialist, rather than the “neoliberal” opposition that will have to preside over any adjustment. Ouch.
The second big question is his health. After three operations to remove two tumours, has Mr Chávez really recovered from cancer as he claims?
Probably not, as “several foreign ministries …. believe that Chávez’s disease is a terminal condition,” says Naim, a former Venezuelan oil minister and a board member at the National Endowment for Democracy.
The regime is likely to implement “constitutional reforms and faster implementation of controversial laws that have already been approved, [including] reforms to increase the power of the executive (or of organisations dependent on the president)” because the president’s ambition “to establish Chavismo as a viable long-term political option would depend on the ability to control those who remain in opposition,” writes the EIU’s Barriga:
Enter the communes. Although originally based on ideological precepts, Mr. Chávez’s increased interest in communal entities stems in large part from political calculations, specifically in trying to erode the power of the opposition at the state and local levels. Thus far, the president has sought to tame regional and local authorities by denying them the share of the national budget to which they are entitled under the constitution — mainly by understating oil revenue. A next stage could potentially involve the transfer the existing political responsibilities (as well as economic resources) that local authorities still enjoy to the communes.
Chávez’s post-election power grab is likely to generate considerable institutional instability, Barriga contends:
The health of Venezuela’s democracy would depend on society’s capacity to maintain a counterweight to the executive, and to a lesser extent on international pressure. While the economy, and in particular movements in the international price of oil, will continue to play a role, Mr Chávez has proved that he can withstand periods of austerity and economic contraction, suggesting that political considerations — and in particular the push to advance his radical agenda — would take precedence over all else.