Mar 20 2014

Venezuela: The Failure of the Fifth Republic


Professor Maxwell A. Cameron, Director of the Centre for the Study of Democratic Institutions, University of British Columbia.


2014_Venezuelan_protests_tear_gas_responseThe turmoil that has rocked Venezuela since early February has resulted in almost 30 deaths, hundreds of injuries, and 1,500 detentions (see timeline here). Although such protests were never likely to threaten the survival of the regime, their intensity, breadth, and duration have exposed the deep cleavages and polarization in Venezuelan society. The intent of many of the protesters is clear: to bring down a government elected less than a year ago.

After 15 years in power, why is the Venezuelan political regime still vulnerable to anti-system opposition? One might ask, to steal a line from Mario Vargas Llosa, ‘en que momento se jodió?’ most from the beginning, I would say. What we are witnessing in Venezuela today is a crisis brought about by the failure of chavismo to adhere to principles of its own ‘Bolivarian’ constitution—indeed, principles inherent in any constitution.

Neither ex-President Hugo Chávez (1998-2013), nor incumbent President Nicolás Maduro, ever fully appreciated the critical role of opposition in constitutional and democratic regimes: to offer a viable electoral alternative to the existing government and to question the actions of government officials, criticise them when appropriate, and thereby ensure that those in power are accountable between elections. The opposition has never truly united around a consensus on whether to play by the constitutional rules of the game. Neither side recognises the legitimacy of the other.

For over a decade, there has been a negative dialectic between the government and the opposition: Chávez minimised the role of the opposition in the constituent assembly that wrote the 1999 Constitution (surely a mistake); the opposition tried to topple Chávez in a botched coup attempt (huge mistake); Chávez hardened his regime, cracking down on critical media and reinforcing popular organisations; a chastened opposition organised a petition to recall Chávez by referendum (a good move, albeit unsuccessful); Chávez fought and prevailed using every trick in the book; a demoralised opposition boycotted the 2005 legislative election and then was trounced in presidential elections the next year (score two for Chávez); Chávez radicalised his revolution; the opposition unified and organised its best effort to challenge Chávez at the polls in 2012, followed by an even stronger result against Maduro in 2013.

This brings us to the present, where the dismal pattern has continued: Maduro should have read his narrow victory as a sign that he needs to reach out to the opposition, but (perhaps more worried about sustaining the internal cohesion of his coalition) he instead confronted and attacked the opposition (mistake); a fraction of the latter threw its support behind student protests of February 2014, using #LaSalida to give them a stronger anti-regime flavour (mistake). The protests have not spread much beyond Venezuela’s middle and upper middle-classes, but they have spread across the country and have lasted for over a month.

All this illustrates that the Bolivarian constitution, although not merely printed matter, has not been fully institutionalised. The government and opposition in Venezuela cannot rise above their differences and recognise each other as citizens. Maduro calls his opponents ‘fascists’; the opposition calls the government a ‘dictatorship’. This can be fatal for democracy. As Guillermo O’Donnell put it, democracy depends on an ‘institutionalised wager’: I may believe you are wrong, but I must respect your right to vote and be elected (2010: 26). We have the same rights of citizenship. These rights are not negotiable. They are inalienable and imprescriptible, and they are backed up by an organisational guarantee: the rule of law under the separation of powers. This is why constitutions matter. They are the constitutive rules of democratic politics and provide the generative grammar that enables democracy to flourish (Cameron 2013).

How should we characterise the Venezuelan political system? Specifically, is Venezuela democratic or authoritarian? The answer is that it is both; it is a hybrid regime. There non-fraudulent elections; but elections are a means to a set of ends or ‘goods’—and they alone do not make a regime democratic. The ends (or ‘goods’) are: (1) the possibility of alternation in power; and (2) the guarantee that a government will govern democratically and that the opposition will accept the results, because it has a legitimate voice and stake in the system. Elections must be free and fair to ensure that they produce these democratic goods, which means that further conditions must be present: access to alternative sources of information, the right to assembly, association and protections for fundamental rights and freedoms. The Venezuelan government has grossly violated these conditions.

Venezuela’s democracy is thus defective; it is plebiscitary and delegative. But is it authoritarian? Classifying a regime as authoritarian requires more than highlighting defects in its democratic features—it requires evidence of authoritarianism. The idea of competitive authoritarianism, although useful, needs further specification to avoid creating confusion over where to draw the line between democracy and authoritarian rule.

The voluminous literature on authoritarian rule reveals a common thread. In authoritarian regimes, a coalition of non-elected officials rules by coercion. Such governments cannot be removed by means of elections. They may be military and/or civilian; they may have technocratic and corporativist elements. Before labelling Venezuela as authoritarian, we would need to see such a coalition come into sharper relief. Perhaps it is there in waiting. We see armed colectivos, the regime’s Rottweilers; we see a politicised military throughout the bureaucracy; we see a Boli-bourgeoisie that does not want to lose its privileges. Could these elements come together to prevent alternation in power? Possibly, but it has not to date. What is clear is that these groups are not interested in allowing the opposition to play its critical role.

In short, the Venezuelan political system today has both democratic and authoritarian features that are at odds with each other. This should guide our thinking about how to avoid deepening the conflict. Venezuela urgently needs dialogue between the government and the opposition. We know from the transitology literature that hard-liners in the regime and radicals in the opposition often reinforce each other, and that successful transitions involve coalitions between soft-liners and moderates (Przeworski 1992). Building such a coalition demands great leadership skills on both sides—but it is possible. It is the challenge faced by current generation of leaders in Venezuela, and the international community can help.

The situation in Venezuela calls for the flexible and proactive diplomacy. In the absence of effective action by the OAS, the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) has offered to convene a much needed dialogue. To be meaningful, any dialogue will have to include human rights, freedom of the press, rights of the opposition, restoration of the constitutional separation of powers, citizen security and the rule of law. As Jennifer McCoy notes, it will have to create space for moderates, build confidence, and restore communication between government and opposition.

The lesson this crisis offers the rest of the world is the importance of opposition in a democracy: ‘In democracies the opposition is an organ of popular sovereignty just as vital as the government. To suppress the opposition is to suppress the sovereignty of the people’ (Guglielmo Ferrero cited in Sartori 1987: 32).



Cameron, Maxwell A. 2013. Strong Constitutions: Social-Cognitive Origins of the Separation of Powers. New York: Oxford University Press.

O’Donnell, Guillermo. 2010. Democracy, Agency, and the State: Theory with Comparative Intent. New York: Oxford University Press.

Przeworski, Adam. 1992. “The Games of Transition.” In Issues in Democratic Consolidation: The New South American Democracies in Comparative Perspective, Ed. Scott Mainwaring, et al. Notre Dame, Indiana: Notre Dame University Press, pp. 105-152.

Sartori, Giovanni. 1987. The Theory of Democracy Revisited: Part I. Clatham: Clatham House Publishers.

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Feb 10 2014

2014 LSE Africa Summit: A Call Home

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In the first of a series of posts on African entrepreneurship in the lead-up to the inaugural LSE Africa Summit, LSE’s Preston Ideh details how the organisers of the Africa Summit are embracing their role as entrepreneurs.

Ashish-Thakkar_bannerAfrican entrepreneurship is a call home.  At the launch of Mara Online, Ugandan multimillionaire Ashish Thakkar flew a chartered plane over Silicon Valley, the world’s technology hub with a banner reading ‘It’s time for Africa’. The call is profound, yet remains unanswered by those gifted with ingenuity. It is very much Africa’s time today, and the answer is simple – Entrepreneurship.

Africa’s role on the world stage is yet to be harnessed, but the world is patiently watching in anticipation. It is a familiar tale of African governments and Foreign Offices to call on Foreign Direct Investment to unlock Africa’s potential, but the answer also lies somewhere even more familiar to us. It lies in our power to dream, to envision and to create. Entrepreneurship is more than running a business and marginal profits; it is about owning something distinct and commercialising an innovation. Innovation itself has always been the driver of progress, and it has never been more necessary. What innovation needs are those entrepreneurs with the knowledge and skills to create the future by thinking now. We all have a desire to see Africa grow, but we must do it ourselves, because what is not started will never get finished.

The biggest mistake foreign investors’ make is to think of Africa as a country rather than a continent. The individual countries in Africa are all distinct, each with its own history, culture, languages and regulations. These are business intricacies that are best understood by Africans themselves, Africans who have grown up understanding their own cultures. This is why Entrepreneurship needs to be born of those who understand their countries best. Indeed, it is a call home for us, because we are best suited to this task. Economics tells us foreign investment will work best if there are entrepreneurs with ideas, businesses to invest in and competition to necessitate innovation. Unarguably, local partners with a strong understanding of market cultures and behavior patterns are the best ways to guide foreign investment. There is little disagreement over an assertion that few people understand African business patterns better than Africans themselves and even fewer can work best with Africans back home. How much more certainty do we require to brace the challenge of answering the call to guide Africa’s economic growth?

There is no doubt that there are risks, hurdles and obstacles to successful African Entrepreneurship, but these are the regular paths of those who have succeeded. Around the world, successful entrepreneurs have learned to embrace the mantra of “no risk, no reward”, or put more aptly “high risk, high reward”. These risks are challenges today, but our tomorrow could make them scars of the past. We may not all be entrepreneurs with million dollar ideas, but there is a role for everyone to play, regardless of age, gender, tribe or socio-economic class and at LSE, we have begun to embrace ours.

LSE’s inaugural Africa Summit is an embodiment of the African desire to streamline entrepreneurial zeal towards our continent. The Summit will challenge business concerns in Africa, guided by African entrepreneurs such as Saran Kaba Jones, Founder of Face Africa and Jim Ovia, Founder of Zenith Bank and Visafone. The call home is one to be answered with full knowledge of the African terrace and challenges, and the Summit is creating a forum for such discussion. Like any other business decision, we cannot undervalue the importance of knowledge and strategy in guiding Africa’s giant step.

So the solution seems rather simple when theoretically outlined. But if Ashish is correct about the time for Africa, it is not enough to have a desire to change things, because to push our continent forward we need to go home and make things happen.

This article was originally posted on the Africa at LSE Blog.

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Jan 31 2014

The EU’s new economic governance is blurring the boundaries between European competences and domestic sovereignty

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As part of the LSE EUROPP series on the Dahrendorf Symposium.


logoThe financial crisis has brought about a number of new European initiatives designed to coordinate national economic policies in the name of stability and growth. Alexander Ruser assesses one such initiative: the issuing of country-specific policy recommendations to EU states. Using a qualitative data analysis of the content of these reports, he writes that governments are being urged to follow policy advice that seriously interferes with national sovereignty in order to demonstrate solidarity with their fellow members of the Eurozone.

In my previous EUROPP article, I wondered whether the European Union is losing political influence in international environment negotiations. I argued that because of changing international relations, the EU may become less important as a normative power on the global scale. But what about the EU’s normative basis itself? Have the challenges of recent years affected its core values, such as ‘solidarity’ and ‘equality’?

Political reaction to the global financial crisis, and in particular to the sovereign debt crisis, has focused on making European economic governance more efficient. In addition to immediate emergency action like rescues and bail-out packages, the most important structural reform was the approval of the ‘European Semester’. Its implementation marked a paradigmatic shift in economic governance. Budget surveillance and control mechanisms have replaced voluntary initiatives such as benchmarking and intergovernmental cooperation like the ‘Open Method of Coordination’ (OMC).

This new framework for economic governance provides important roles for the Council of the European Union and the European Council, while the European Parliament finds itself reduced to an advisory function. It clearly favours intergovernmental decision-making over democratic legitimation at the European level. As a reaction to global financial turmoil, recent government reform in Europe has been driven by a desire to fix the flaws of monetary union, encourage financial sustainability and increase its efficiency and reliability.

Unlike more future-oriented reforms of the past, the new economic governance seems to lack political vision. Instead, it tinkers with the symptoms of the crisis and indicates the EU’s adoption of a more technocratic approach, stressing agreement upon what is ‘necessary’ to save the euro and restore stability. The provision of annual, country-specific policy recommendations is among the most important governance innovations to reach this goal.

Aiming at providing a blueprint of the respective requirements, these reports (which are proposed by the European Commission but are adopted and finalised by the European Council in July of each year) differ considerably from soft law mechanisms like the OMC. As a result of intergovernmental deliberation, the European Semester seeks to increase national responsibility for action. Part of this process is the blurring of European competences and domestic sovereignty. An examination of the county-specific policy recommendations from the past two years reveals that policy coordination under the new governance framework is far from limited to fields of clear European competence.

Qualitative data analysis of the 2012 policy recommendations shows that elected bodies in 15 countries were advised to make significant changes to their pension systems (especially to raise the statutory retirement age). Six governments were advised to reform national healthcare and almost a third were called on to encourage ‘productivity responsive wage-setting’ which could mean substantial changes to collective bargaining traditions. In contrast to policy fields closely affiliated with Brussels (like trade and research politics), policy recommendations on social policy and domestic taxation indicate a de facto reduction of domestic political manoeuvrability.

Table: Policy advice in the 2012 country-specific Council Recommendation

Note: Author’s own calculations, QDA Miner

 These findings may mark the beginning of revolutionary. but consensual changes to the normative basis of the EU. National governments are being urged to follow policy advice that seriously interferes with national sovereignty in order to demonstrate their solidarity with their fellow members of the Eurozone. At the same time, the strong position of intergovernmental institutions under this governance framework makes sure that the creditor Member States can influence specific policy recommendations. Further harmonisation of domestic politics could also make its way in, with national governments lacking the power to resist.

On the European level, insisting on maintaining national sovereignty displays a lack of solidarity. At home, policy recommendations claim the technocratic appeal of being necessary in order to regain economic stability not only within a particular country, but for the Eurozone as a whole. This may lead to a substantial redefinition of the boundaries between domestic and European politics. When national governments are urged to reform social security, collective bargaining or taxation because of a necessity to do so defined elsewhere, the question of the legitimacy of European politics – especially given the limited influence of the European Parliament – has to be addressed again.

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