mardi 5 octobre 2010

And Now What, Chávez?

By Michael Shifter

Sunday’s important legislative elections injected some badly needed energy into Venezuela’s political situation. In politics, tendencies and psychology matter a great deal. So while Hugo Chavez’s Socialist Party of Venezuela retains majority control in the National Assembly, the fact that he lost the super-majority (two-thirds advantage) in Congress is significant. The combined opposition parties, under the umbrella Democratic Unity Table, performed well, particularly in the face of the government’s strong institutional control and manipulations. Come January, they will have over 60 seats in the Assembly. This is enough to prevent Chavez from pushing through measures aimed at deepening and extending his Socialism of the 21st Century.

Until now, Chavez has been able to do just that without resistance. Venezuela's political game is likely to change. The election results show that there is enormous and widespread dissatisfaction with the Chavez government in Venezuela. This should remove any doubt that Chavez's hold on power is vulnerable in the 2012 presidential elections. Venezuela's deteriorating security and economic situations have become too great to ignore and have hit Chavez's main constituency – the very poor – the hardest. In the end, governance is important, and Chavez’s governance has been dismal by any measure. Venezuelans seem eager for alternatives. The focus now shifts to Venezuela’s opposition forces, which have long been fractured and have occasionally had a misguided strategy (as when they boycotted the last National Assembly elections in 2005).

Now, however, they have a real opportunity to seriously challenge Chavez. They face two critical tasks. The first is to identify an appealing leader who can effectively convey a vision for a post-Chavez Venezuela. The second is to develop serious policy ideas to address a range of problems, particularly mounting crime and economic distress. Venezuelans are aware of Chavez’s deficiencies in governing, whatever his concern for social justice might be. Now they are ready for real answers. Some believe that Chavez will respond to this setback by becoming more pragmatic and moderate. But that is out of character and hard to imagine. It is unrealistic to expect that his representatives in the Assembly will seek to reach accommodation on key policy measures with opposition forces. Others think Chavez will resort to tricks to usurp authorities and undermine the elected members of Congress, just as he did to opposition mayors and governors who won elections in 2008.

These anti-democratic moves, however, are unlikely to work now. The mood of the country has changed. Venezuelans appear to be tired of endless confrontation and polarization. Chavez will probably look for ways to mobilize and firm up his increasingly disenchanted political base, particularly the rural poor. He cannot win again in 2012 unless he keeps a core group of committed supporters. He is likely to spend the oil income he has on greater services and benefits to those sectors. As in the past, Chavez could also be tempted to verbally attack Colombia and the United States to divert attention from domestic problems. But such tirades will have less and less effect. Economic pressures have led Venezuela to recover its commerce with Colombia, which under the Santos administration has wisely defused tensions by pursuing a more pragmatic course with Chavez. Chavez is resourceful and still has political options, but they are shrinking. And conditions in his country show no signs of improving.

Publicado en El Colombiano, 1/10/10 (versión original en español). "Tendiendo puentes" no se responsabiliza de la opiniones vertidas en el artículo.