Huffpost WorldPost
Federico Barriga Headshot

What to Expect From a New Chávez Term

Posted: Updated:

With the official vote count almost finished, it is now clear that Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez has delivered another resounding victory, winning a new six-year term with around 54 percent of the votes and 1.3 million more than the main opposition contender, Henrique Capriles. Among others, the results suggest that the Chávez camp was more successful in attracting independent voters than what some polls and the opposition had originally envisaged. It also implies that the president's campaign strategy to appear moderate and conciliatory vis-à-vis undecided voters delivered positive results -- in fact Mr. Chávez was quick to emphasize his centrist position during his victory speech.

But does this mean that we are likely to see a more moderate Chavismo in the next few years? 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. Most importantly, Venezuela might see the emergence of a "sub-system" of political and economic organisations that will grant the executive even greater power at the expense of institutional stability and political plurality.

Power Grab

Some of the most important changes that are likely to take place in a new Chávez administration are constitutional reforms and faster implementation of controversial laws that have already been approved. The most likely reform is a change of the current succession mechanism to ensure that the ruling party, the Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV), retains the presidency in the event that Mr Chávez needs to step down because of health reasons -- at present the constitution demands new elections if a president steps down in the half of a six-year term. But other reforms to increase the power of the executive (or of organisations dependent on the president) would also be key, as the president's desire -- expressed at different points of the campaign trail -- to establish Chavismo as a viable long-term political option would depend on the ability to control those who remain in opposition.

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. In fact, the laws that would enshrine the basic forms of communes are already on the statute book and would essentially replace local democracy with communal assemblies created specifically for the "construction of socialism" and controlled by the national executive.

Other actors who have opposed Mr. Chávez's policies in the past are also be likely to be targeted, with various tactics and degrees of radicalism. 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, with certain industries, such as food-processing and the financial system, as potential short-term targets. Moreover, the government would also try to accelerate the implementation of alternative economic structures -- tied to communal organisations, referred to as Empresas de Producción Social (EPS) -- that will reduce the scope of private participation even further.

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.

Institutional instability

Perhaps Mr. Chávez's most difficult relationship will be with the armed forces. Although the president claims that the military are chavista, these sentiments have been echoed by only a few of his most loyal generals, with a significant portion of officers ascribing to other views. Therefore, a main objective is likely to be to promote military officers based on political loyalty, while giving more power and representation to the socialist militia, which the government claims is already composed of 125,000 people. However, the risks involved are substantial, as the integrity and institutional solidity of the armed forces would be severely dented, potentially opening the way for social conflict and a further deterioration in the country's poor security environment.

Overall, the re-election of Mr. Chávez represents a serious challenge to what remains of Venezuela's weakened institutional framework, and to the further erosion of political plurality. 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.

Federico Barriga is a Latin America Economist for the Economist Intelligence Unit.