The results of the October 7 election are useful for thinking about the process of socio-political transformations in Latin America, particularly in those countries that consider themselves radical or “re-foundational.” Of course radical experiences such as those of Bolivia, Ecuador, and Venezuela, are very different from each other; however, they do share some positions, influence each other’s political strategies, and impact the relevance each country gives to certain topics.

Disenchantment with twentieth-century democracies and their difficulties in improving socio-economic conditions for the majority provide the basis of legitimation for these new models of politics and governance. An agenda centered on the overcoming of historical exclusions, unacceptable inequalities, poverty, and misery has so far given these new governing projects important legitimacy. The reduction of inequalities is, without a doubt, an unavoidable prerequisite for improving the conditions of citizenship for the majority.

The government of President Chávez has developed a series of political initiatives and actions in order to address these evils, and this has been a central part of the government’s discourse in justifying its “revolutions.” It is worth noting that according to official figures poverty and misery have been reduced by half since Chávez came to power in 1999, and that the Gini coefficient has also improved. Venezuela is today recognized as one of the most equal countries on the South American continent (INE, 2012).

When Chávez became president in 1999, poverty levels were the justification for the transformation of the political regime and for the transition from a representative democracy into a “participatory and protagonistic” democracy. To achieve this transition a constitutive assembly was called, which wrote a new constitution; this new Constitution was later approved by popular referendum. It laid out a model based in representative democracy, adding mechanisms of direct and participatory democracy with the aim of “democratizing democracy.” The new Constitution encouraged the government to promote diverse social organizations, mainly in poor barrios; with an eye toward attending to and solving urgent problems of basic services, such as running water and electricity, which are seen as fundamental human rights. Direct participation of citizens in solving their own problems was also considered a mechanism for the construction of citizenship.

During the political crisis from 2001 to 2005 (a Coup d`Etat, an oil workers’ strike, a referendum against Chávez, guarimbas [opposition protests], etc.), the government had to face socio-economic and political emergencies. At that time the government developed social policies that could quickly respond to urgent problems (unemployment, food shortages, health) without having to go through lengthy and slow bureaucratic channels. Doing so helped it regain its legitimacy in that period. This was the origin of the “missions” which were so successful that the government has now turned them into the core of its social policy.

When they were developed, the missions were directly linked to the President, freed from State institutions. Thanks to the surge in oil prices—which began in 2004 and aside from brief interruptions in 2009 and 2010 has continued until now—more than 30 missions have been created and a significant part of the population has registered their names and received some sort of assistance from them. These mission registrations have been used by the President in elections of every type in order to guarantee a flow of votes for himself and for his political project. This relationship was particularly important during the October 2012 Presidential election, both because of the PSUV’s improved mobilization capacity and due to the launching of the “great missions,” which were profusely publicized during the campaign and funded by the President with billions of Bolivares in resources. State media constantly publicized the President’s largesse. Because of the laws that privilege State publicity, and the President’s unlimited access to cadenas (mandatory transmissions on all broadcast outlets) private media was also forced to publicize them. This form of implementing social policies—outside of State institutions and subject to the President’s will—has established client-patron links in which benefits, or expected benefits, should be reciprocated with political loyalty. This loyalty is mainly expected in the form of mobilization during electoral campaigns, and voting for Chávez and his party. We should also add here the demand made on public employees to go to PSUV events, and to support and vote for its candidates. This is notable as the number of public employees has swelled as jobs in the formal private sector are decreasing.

Chavista clientalism is different from past Venezuelan versions in a couple of ways: Whereas before relationship was linked to the parties, now it is linked to the President as a person. Even if it is the PSUV giving out favors, it always does so in the name of Chávez. The handouts are now much more publicized and are considered a legitimate means for obtaining votes. The President has enjoyed a historic oil price boom. However, the missions and the communal councils have proven to be more efficient mechanisms for distributing the resources of that boom among the population than the mechanisms used by parties in the past. In this way, the State-society relationship, for a very significant part of the population (poverty still affects 27% of families, according to official figures) becomes a patron-client link, and access to resources is not associated with productive work but with gifts given by Chávez at his discretion. The characteristics of this relationship cast doubt on the quality of the citizenship it generates. It does solve basic unsatisfied needs for excluded sectors of the population, but only as long as they manifest political loyalty. Due to the way in which oil money is distributed, inclusion is produced through consumption and is not based on stable, quality employment; thus it does not seem to be effectively and permanently pulling people out of poverty. It does not nourish values of citizenship such as co-responsibility, fulfillment of duties, solidarity with others, etc. While these current practices broaden citizenship through access to rights, they restrict those citizens’ potential for autonomy and responsibility.

The October 7 election also raises the question of how much inequality in public resources a democratic election can tolerate. In Venezuela, electoral propaganda during election periods, and the use of the presidential cadenas, are subject to no regulation whatsoever. The use of public resources and the proselytizing activities of public employees is formally regulated, but the enforcement of those regulations leaves much to be desired. Authorities and officials of the government formed the Comando Carabobo, President Chávez’s campaign, and his Chief of Campaign was the Mayor of the Libertador municipality. This, however, is not permitted by existing electoral rules. These democratic deficits do not seem, however, to delegitimize the electoral results in the eyes of an important part of the population.

This situation could perhaps be considered the core of the problem for conventional or classical conceptions of democracy for these “re-foundational” democracies in the region. These countries claim a “revolutionary” legitimacy. In the case of Venezuela this claim emerges in a statement in the second article of the Bolivarian Constitution: “Venezuela constitutes itself as a Social State of Law and Justice, whose legal order and actions holds as superior values: life, liberty, justice, equality, solidarity, democracy, social responsibility and, in general, the preeminence of human rights, ethics and political pluralism.”

This statement of a Social State of Law and Justice could justify many of the government’s actions that are not in agreement with the laws and the Constitution, although this justification has never been made explicit in such form. When there is a conflict between laws and what the government—meaning Chávez—promotes, legality is trumped, perhaps with an assumption that the government’s position is “just.” But, who determines what is just? The President?

Let us illustrate this behavior of public institutions with two examples. In 2007, by Chavéz’s initiative a proposal for constitutional reform was submitted to a popular referendum. This proposal was then understood as deepening the revolution by adapting the Carta Magna to the parameters of Twenty-first Century Socialism. The proposal included the emergence of “Popular Power” and a new territorial and political structure of Communal Councils that would become the basis of a new State. In the referendum the proposal was defeated. However, against strict constitutional provisions that pointed out that a reform rejected in a referendum could not be considered again until a new Presidential period (art. 345), many of the proposals in the text were later implemented through Presidential decrees and laws approved by the National Assembly. A Supreme Court subject to the President and his revolution emitted an interpretation of the law that favored the President’s interests. By the end of the 2007-2013 Presidential period, thanks to “socialist” laws, a new form of state—the Communal State”—had emerged, a State in many aspects different, and even in contradiction, to the Bolivarian Constitution. How can this conduct be interpreted? Is it the use of legal formalisms to justify the continuation of a socialist project because that is the will of the President? Or is it that the President is the embodiment of “justice” and it is therefore acceptable for him to trump even the Constitution?

The second example is both more recent and specific. After the October 7 elections, in preparation for the regional elections of December 16, The National Electoral Council (CNE) modified the Electoral Registry by changing the voting centers for six PSUV governor candidates and their entourage, with 108 changes taking place in total. The Electoral Registry for the December elections was already closed and should be identical to the one used for the October 7 elections. According to the CNE, the changes were “exceptional” and were justified with the argument that they would not alter the electoral results (which is true), and guaranteed the candidates’ right to vote. However, CNE rules do not provide for different rights for different candidates. One could ask if these “exceptional” considerations would also have been applied for non-PSUV candidates. As with the previous example we might ask: Where is the limit between what is democratic and what is not? Can the electoral referee trump its own legal norms and favor one of the parties by arguing for “rights” that are not contemplated in those norms without undermining democracy?

The current processes of political transformation in Latin America defy the postulates of classical democracy because, as re-foundational processes, they privilege principles of equality over classical principles such as independence of political powers or the guarantee of certain civil and political freedoms. This is why a serious and systematic debate over what “democracy” is and what constitutes its minimum “filters,” is so urgent in the region. Such a debate is necessary to determine which democratic proposals aim for the development of broader and more complete forms of citizenship and which do not. Some of the developments presented here reveal successes but also weaknesses in the road to more vigorous democracy.

Margarita López Maya is a historian at the Universidad Central de Venezuela. Luis E Lander is one of the directors of the Observatorio Electoral Venezolano.

(Translated by Hugo Pérez Hernaíz and Rebecca Hanson)