Don’t Blame the Constitution for Our Winner-Takes-All Politics

What makes controlling the Executive Branch so valuable in Venezuela isn’t our Constitution, it’s the fact that the government ignores it without consequences.

Writing in the Financial Times on May 29th, Francisco Rodríguez argues that Venezuela’s institutional setup is designed as a winner-takes-all system that concentrates power in the executive. Ceding power to the opposition is therefore perceived as too costly by a chavismo fearful of persecution and political banishment. For a durable peace to emerge, the argument goes, you have to change the Constitution to protect the rights of chavismo, now the minority. Otherwise, we’re warned, Venezuela runs the risk of ending up like present day Libya.

While the Constitution can certainly be amended to further reduce costs of being in the opposition, most notably by barring reelection and shortening the presidential term, this is not the binding constraint.

Venezuela’s Constitution already has plenty of provisions to promote the peaceful co-existence of contending political groups and protect minority rights. It prohibits the use of state resources for party political ends, bars the armed forces from taking partisan positions, sets out mechanisms to rein in the executive (including recall referenda and legislative oversight over executive decisions), and a long list of other provisions designed to limit just how much the winner can take.

For a durable peace to emerge, the argument goes, you have to change the Constitution to protect the rights of chavismo, now the minority.

The winner-takes-all features of Venezuelan politics don’t stem from the Constitution; they’re the practical outcome of utterly disregarding it. That outcome, in turn, flows from the government’s control of oil rents, which makes rule-following optional, and allows an increasingly small group of officials to hold the country, including the overwhelming majority of chavistas, hostage to their narrow interests while displaying complete indifference to the humanitarian cost of their obstinacy.

But we have one key asset the Libyans of the early 70s lacked: a long democratic tradition. Despite the ruling party’s best efforts, Venezuelans evidently deem that tradition worth fighting for. To lay the groundwork for a durable transition there must indeed be a negotiated agreement that builds on that tradition.

And yet Francisco may be onto something with his reference to Libya.

In April 1973, as his revolution was losing popularity, Muammar Gaddafi dissolved all existing laws and proclaimed that all enemies of the Revolution were to be purged. Decreeing an administrative revolution, he swept away the remnants of the “bourgeois state”. He ordered all good revolutionaries into Consejo Comunal-style committees and declared his determination to rid Libya of foreign influences. He managed to steamroll all opposition, carry this program off, and cement himself into a ruinous four-decade dictatorship. The Libyan parallel Venezuelans need to be mindful of is 1973.

Chavismo no longer presents a united front. Due to Maduro’s insistence on doing away with the Constitution, an increasing number of high-ranking chavistas have openly parted ways with the government. This wedge is one the opposition would do well to take advantage of. The goal is not to try to obliterate chavismo altogether, but rather to create a broad coalition of democrats  – including some newly converted in defense of the Constitution and for national reconciliation.

Many dissenting chavistas realize how much they have to gain from participating in a democratic Venezuela. They would no doubt remain a formidable force.

The cornerstone of this agreement should be respect for the existing Constitution, and the Rule of Law more broadly. Additionally, the agreement will clearly have to include guarantees to defecting chavistas in the form of amnesties, yet these need not be inserted in the Constitution but can instead be overseen by the international community.

The goal is not to try to obliterate chavismo altogether, but rather to create a broad coalition of democrats… in defense of the Constitution.

A unified front, of opposition and chavismo, rallying around the present Constitution could induce other defections – international allies included– further isolating Maduro and his clique and making their continued hold on power that much less tenable.

A transition could take the form of a unity government that takes power by choosing a consensus vice-president and having Maduro resign. This unity government would then be charged with implementing long overdue economic reforms, opening a humanitarian channel, freeing all political prisoners, recognizing the National Assembly’s prerogatives, and renewing the other branches of power in preparation for presidential elections due in 2018.

All this can be achieved without changing one comma in the Constitution.

Venezuela has the democratic capital for a viable, orderly transition. Looking ahead the real challenge is not how to avoid ending up like Libya, but rather, how not to end up like present-day Venezuela twenty or thirty years down the line.

The crux of the problem is not poorly designed rules: it’s that the state’s economic dominance, even in its crippled post-oil-boom condition, makes following any rules feel like an optional frippery. This is not a recent predicament, but one that has been greatly exacerbated under chavismo. Without a broader distribution of economic power, political freedoms will always remain vulnerable. Changing this predicament will require much more than adding one or two phrases to the Constitution, and that process certainly can’t start with acquiescence to the regime’s uncontrolled rule-breaking.