Ledezma Making Sense

Quico says: No, I can’t believe I’m writing this either, but we need to face up: Caracas’s embattled mayor, Antonio Ledezma is turning out to be a far smarter, saner, and far, far more effective opposition politician than many of us ever dared to dream.

Ledezma’s concept of “neo-dictatorship” is pretty much the same as what I’ve been calling “autocracy”. The specific word used to describe it doesn’t matter to me as much as the realization that what Chávez does is conceptually distinct from dictatorship as traditionally understood. In the academic leadership, this kind of state system seems to go by the name “competitive authoritarianism” more and more. Coined by Steven Levitsky and Lucan A. Way, the system seems to be gaining more and more currency:

Competitive authoritarianism must be distinguished from democracy on the one hand and full-scale authoritarianism on the other. Modern democratic regimes all meet four minimum criteria: 1) Executives and legislatures are chosen through elections that are open, free, and fair; 2) virtually all adults possess the right to vote; 3) political rights and civil liberties, including freedom of the press, freedom of association, and freedom to criticize the government without reprisal, are broadly protected; and 4) elected authorities possess real authority to govern, in that they are not subject to the tutelary control of military or clerical leaders. Although even fully democratic regimes may at times violate one or more of these criteria, such violations are not broad or systematic enough to seriously impede democratic challenges to incumbent governments. In other words, they do not fundamentally alter the playing field between government and opposition.

In competitive authoritarian regimes, by contrast, violations of these criteria are both frequent enough and serious enough to create an uneven playing field between government and opposition. Although elections are regularly held and are generally free of massive fraud, incumbents routinely abuse state resources, deny the opposition adequate media coverage, harass opposition candidates and their supporters, and in some cases manipulate electoral results. Journalists, opposition politicians, and other government critics may be spied on, threatened, harassed, or arrested. Members of the opposition may be jailed, exiled, or—less frequently—even assaulted or murdered. Regimes characterized by such abuses cannot be called democratic.

Competitive authoritarianism must therefore be distinguished from unstable, ineffective, or otherwise flawed types of regimes that nevertheless meet basic standards of democracy, and this includes what Guillermo O’Donnell has called “delegative democracies.” According to O’Donnell, delegative democracies are characterized by low levels of horizontal accountability (checks and balances) and therefore exhibit powerful, plebiscitarian, and occasionally abusive executives. Yet such regimes meet minimum standards for democracy. Delegative democracy thus applies to such cases as Argentina and Brazil in the early 1990s, but not to Peru after Fujimori’s 1992 presidential self-coup.

Yet if competitive authoritarian regimes fall short of democracy, they also fall short of full-scale authoritarianism. Although incumbents in competitive authoritarian regimes may routinely manipulate formal democratic rules, they are unable to eliminate them or reduce them to a mere façade. Rather than openly violating democratic rules (for example, by banning or repressing the opposition and the media), incumbents are more likely to use bribery, co-optation, and more subtle forms of persecution, such as the use of tax authorities, compliant judiciaries, and other state agencies to “legally” harass, persecute, or extort cooperative behavior from critics. Yet even if the cards are stacked in favor of autocratic incumbents, the persistence of meaningful democratic institutions creates arenas through which opposition forces may—and frequently do—pose significant challenges. As a result, even though democratic institutions may be badly flawed, both authoritarian incumbents and their opponents must take them seriously.

Nobody would confuse him for the academic type, but Ledezma gets it. In the clip above, he summarizes the distinctions Levitsky and Way make with uncanny precision. I have to take my hat off to him grasping what he’s up against as clearly as he has. Endlessly demonized, stripped of his powers, aggressively harassed, Ledezma nonetheless keeps his cool and restrains himself from lobbing shrill “ESTE RRRRRRRREGIMEN TOTALITARIO!!!!” rhetorical grenades at the government. The guy has his ojo pelao…eyes wide open, man, eyes wide open.

Ledezma…whodathunk, huh?