Argentina, Venezuela elections challenge authoritarian governments

Caracas, Venezuela, Dec. 15, 2015: President Nicolas Maduro speaks to supporters outside presidential palace (source: dpa)
Caracas, Venezuela, Dec. 15, 2015: President Nicolas Maduro speaks to supporters outside presidential palace (source: dpa)

Every region of the world since the end of the Cold War has seen examples of regimes that operate within a legal and constitutional framework, but attempt to rig the system to stay in power. This has been called ‘competitive authoritarianism’ because some competition is allowed, but leaders attempt to govern in an authoritarian manner. In many cases, they justify their attempts to prolong their rule with populist appeals. Over the past year, Argentina and Venezuela have demonstrated this model with extraordinary clarity , writes Dr Joseph S. Tulchin.

In Argentina, former President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner wanted to run for a third term, despite a constitutional prohibition against doing so. She could not get the votes in Congress to amend the constitution. Polls throughout 2014 made it clear that a large majority of Argentinians wanted their president to play by the rules.

On December 10, 2015, Mauricio Macri of the Let’s Change (Cambiemos) opposition coalition was sworn in as president, having beaten Ms Kirchner’s chosen successor. The opposition also won gubernatorial elections in the five most populous jurisdictions in the country. Ms Kirchner stepped down and left town in a huff.

In Venezuela, the opposition coalition, the Democratic Unity Roundtable, won a landslide victory last week in legislative elections taking more than two-thirds of the seats in the National Assembly. They got 56 per cent of votes against 41 per cent for the government. The problem in Venezuela is that you cannot govern from the national assembly. There has to be some sort of collaboration between the executive and the legislature.

Unlike in Argentina, the majority of Venezuelans who voted against the government were expressing dissatisfaction with the state of the economy, not necessarily with the lack of democracy. The price of oil, Venezuela's only noteworthy export, has fallen more than 60 per cent in the past year. Budget revenue has plummeted, inflation is over 100 per cent, basic staples are missing from the store shelves, and hospitals are closing because they have no medicine.

To meet these challenges, the new parliamentary majority – which takes office on January 6, 2016 – will need to work with the executive. Dissension within the opposition coalition will hinder collaboration. The majority moderates are willing to cooperate with President Nicolas Maduro, while the smaller radical faction wants him out, fast.

Even if he were willing to cooperate, Mr Maduro is hindered by party colleagues who are knee-deep in corruption. Some are even involved in drug trafficking. If brought into public view these activities would expose them to the threat of legal action. This was made clear recently when United States prosecutors indicated they would file charges against two of Maduro’s closest allies, bringing to five the number of current and former officials under indictment in the US.

Mr Maduro has few good options. His best bet is to cooperate, or appear to do so, by working to clean up the economic mess. That would deprive the opposition's radical wing of their main argument to get rid of him and allow the ruling party to stay in power until the next elections in 2017. Mr Maduro's other options include blocking the assembly, refusing to share power and clamping down even more on the media and street protesters.

Given the international context, the latter looks unlikely. Both Mr Macri and President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil (not to mention authorities in the US), have warned him that such moves would risk Venezuela being ousted from the Mercosur trade group and the UNASUR community of South American nations.

The space for political competition in two semi-authoritarian states just got larger. In Argentina, the opposition has captured the executive branch; in Venezuela, the legislature. Now the election victors must show what they can do with the space they have won.

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