Venezuela has been in the midst of a constitutional and democratic crisis since 2013, when the leader of the United Socialist Party (PSUV), Hugo Chavez, died. Opposers to the power of the PSUV were disappointed when, after Chavez’s death, PSUV leader Nicolas Maduro was elected as the succeeding president. To ease tensions that escalated after a Supreme Court attempt to take over the powers of the opposition-controlled National Assembly, President Maduro announced the creation of a Constituent Assembly on the 30th of July, which would rewrite the 1999 constitution.
On October 15th, 2017, the Venezuelan people voted for State Governors representatives in the new Constituent Assembly. However, there is question about how free and fair these elections were. The party of the current president, Nicolas Maduro, won a majority of the seats in the Assembly, despite earlier polls that predicted a win of the opposition party. Cries of election fraud rang out swiftly from both Venezuela and election-observing countries.
The controversial decision itself to replace the National Assembly with the Constituent Assembly this summer was also a subject of criticism within the country and the international community. Those who opposed the new assembly claimed it was increasingly authoritarian because of the immense powers that were given to the assembly. The Constituent Assembly has the power to remove officials, change the constitution, and change institutions. This gives the party in charge enormous amounts of power, strengthening Maduro’s rule on the country.
There were also debates on whether the vote to implement the Constituent Assembly was valid as well. Several countries, including the United States and Canada, did not accept the results of the vote because of the controversy surrounding the election itself. The ballots did not have identification on them and voters were able to vote wherever they pleased — they did not have to vote where they were registered. Maduro’s party won the vote in a landslide and the Constituent Assembly went into effect, despite widespread protest. This vote was the final step to make all branches of government under executive control, pushing Venezuela even further to an effective dictatorship.
The increasing tendency towards authoritarianism is a constant fear in Venezuelan politics. Maduro, and his predecesor, Hugo Chávez, are adherents and pioneers of Chavism, a populist socialist movement. Though it began with a desire to integrate Latin America and the Caribbean into one federation of revolutionary states and uphold participatory government, Chavism has become associated with declines in civil liberties and populism. These political problems continue to impede democracy in the Venezuelan government, much to the dismay of the citizens. The support of the opposition forces in the recent election display the citizen’s dislike of the authoritarian rule.
Venezuela is also in the midst of an economic crisis. In addition to the issue of the increasingly authoritarian government, there are severe shortages of basic necessities, such as food and medicine, fueled by the incompetent political leadership. Venezuela’s economy is deeply rooted in the production and sale of oil. Though oil prices have declined for over a decade, recent commodity price collapse has sent the country into a deep economic crisis. The crisis was also made worse by the Maduro’s poor reaction. Instead of properly dealing with the oil price collapse, he used the crisis as a means to obtain more power.
Despite the heavy amounts of criticism and outcry, Maduro has stood firm that this election is another step forward for democracy. However, there are many reasons to believe that there was election fraud and the government tampered with the elections. Many voting locations opened late and Maduro’s government was still campaigning on TV, even though it is against election laws to do so. Voting centers were moved last minute to undesirable locations in attempts to dissuade voters from voting. There were violent attacks on the opposition, though the government does not acknowledge this. There were also boycotts of the election. Some people believe that all politicians are liars and voting will not help. These low opinions of political efficacy show the lack of faith in the government. Surveys show this distrust. The current government only has a 20% approval rating. Venezuelans are frustrated at the current state of their government, both economically and politically.
The future of democracy in Venezuela rests in the separation of the branches and the implementation of free and fair elections. But until then, the dictatorship continues.