On January 9 Venezuela’s Supreme Court (TSJ) ruled that President Chávez’s oath of office could be postponed because he is a reelected president and therefore there is a continuity of administration. While the court’s decision provided a temporary solution to the Chávez government’s immediate predicament, it has also created a murky situation that could lead to a political and institutional crisis, alter the Chávez movement’s commitment to electoral democracy, and put its democratic credentials in doubt.
The ruling allowed Vice-President Nicolas Maduro to be continue in charge for the near future, which was expected. However, many analysts thought the court would declare Chávez to be on a “temporary absence,” which allows a president to delegate his authority for ninety days for personal reasons, renewable one time. If the court had chosen that path, the government would have had to call for presidential elections during the next six months if Chávez does not return. Such a ruling would have been easily justifiable under Venezuela’s Constitution. However, the TSJ’s actual ruling is more controversial and created tensions in an already polarized country.
Unforeseen Institutional Consequences
Practical and administrative issues will appear in the following weeks, with the new government having to make some important decisions. However, Vice President Maduro does not have full presidential powers as he would have had under a temporary absence; rather he simply has some powers delegated to him by Chávez in December. As a result the TSJ and the National Assembly will likely have to make small amendments and adaptations to the institutional framework in order to accommodate situations that occur. In turn, these small changes could jeopardize essential elements of the country’s political institutional framework and begin to create a new institutional framework. (Political scientists call this institutional change through layering). This institutional framework will not be the product of a plan or design but of a series of emergency situations. One example of this has already occurred: the government’s recent decision to name Elias Jaua as the government’s first “political vice-president,” a post that does not exist in the Constitution.
Altering the Character of the Bolivarian Revolution
The most fundamental characteristic of democracy—as understood in Venezuela—is that the people, through competitive elections and other deliberative processes can decide to change the country’s status quo. President Chávez has repeatedly said that the Bolivarian Revolution is a democratic revolution; while there have been innumerable conflicts over electoral processes during his tenure, the record shows a commitment to multi-party elections. The TSJ’s decision, however, could tempt political actors’ inside the government to ensure continuity through institutional engineering and control of the courts rather than electoral processes. Indeed maintaining power through the latter will be more difficult without Chávez. In this sense, the TSJ’s decision may pose a set of crucial choices for the Chávez coalition. If some actors opt for institutional engineering rather than democracy, the Chávez government could become a new political regime with different characteristics and aims.
Finally, a Maduro-led government is currently viewed as legitimate by a majority of the population, but will progressively lose this legitimacy as time passes since it is not elected. Venezuelans have deep democratic and electoral values and the country has a long history of democratic politics—more than 50 consecutive years of democratic rule. Thus, while many inside the government might think they can go on indefinitely without elections, they might face unexpected reactions from the Venezuelan people, including Chávez supporters. In this case, the actions of the opposition are extremely important. If, in the face of what it views as unconstitutional behavior by the government, the opposition itself stays committed to the constitution and democratic politics, that could keep the government on democratic terrain. If, in contrast, it deviates from the democratic path (as it did in the 2002 coup d’etat) that could create a vicious cycle in which the Venezuelan people have to choose between two undemocratic projects.
Of course, the above-mentioned dilemmas and scenarios will be a footnote in the history books if President Chávez’s health improves soon. Even when he is absent, he remains the protagonist of the drama of Venezuelan politics.
Dimitris Pantoulas is a graduate student at the University of Bath doing doctoral research on political and economic institutional change during the Chávez era.