// archives

National Assembly

This tag is associated with 3 posts

Venezuela: Drifting Towards Civil War

“I am no Mussolini,” insisted Venezuela’s beleagured President Nicolas Maduro on television early this month, but if things go on this way he could end up like Mussolini. That would be very unfortunate for him, and also for Venezuela.

The daily street protests against Maduro’s rule are now in their second month, and around forty people have already been killed, most of them by the police. “Molotov cocktails” (fire-bombs) are old hat; the new fashion is for “poopootovs” – containers of human or animal excrement that are thrown at the security forces. Nobody knows when it will all end, but most people fear that it will end badly.

It didn’t begin all that badly. Hugo Chavez, a radical former army officer who had led a failed coup attempt in 1992, was elected to the presidency quite legitimately in 1998. Venezuela was the richest country in South America because of its oil wealth, but most of the 31 million Venezuelans were very poor, and Chavez proposed to change that.

He had strong popular support – majorities of around 60 percent in the 2002 and 2006 elections, and still 55 percent even in 2012 – and he had lots of money to give to the poor. But he died of cancer in 2013, and his successor, a former bus driver called Nicolas Maduro, got barely 50 percent of the vote in a special election later that year. He has not had a quiet moment since.

The problem is money. Chavez ran up massive deficits to finance his spending on health, education and housing, which really did transform the lives of many of Venezuela’s poor, but the bills only came in after he died. The world price of oil collapsed, Venezuela’s income did too, and everything went sour.

Now Venezuela has the highest inflation in the world (700 percent this year), and the economy has shrunk by almost one-fifth. There are chronic shortages of food and medicines: three-quarters of Venezuelans say they are eating less than two meals a day, and the child death rate is up by 30 percent. And a lot of people, including former Maduro supporters, are very angry.

Maduro’s response has been to blame all the problems on the local business elite, who he claims are hoarding goods to cause shortages, and on the United States, which he says is plotting with the local opposition parties to overthrow the elected government. But plots are hardly necessary: he barely scraped into office in the 2012 election, and he would lose massively in an election held today.

To stay in power, Maduro must avoid an election, and the next presidential election is due next year. The opposition had already won a two-thirds majority in the National Assembly in 2015, so Maduro’s first move, in late March, was to have the Supreme Court (packed with his supporters) simply declare that the National Assembly was “in contempt” of the country’s laws and shut it down.

That was what brought the protesters out on the streets in such numbers that three days later Maduro lost his nerve and the Supreme Court revoked its decree. But the protests, fueled by the growing shortages of practically everything, just kept going, and now the demonstrators were demanding that the next presidential election be brought forward from 2018 to this year.

Maduro is cornered. He could not win a presidential election this year, or in 2018 either. It’s not even certain that the rank-and-file of the security forces can be relied on to defend him forever. So he has played his last card: a new constitution.

The last constitution was written by Chavez himself and adopted in 1999. At the time, he said it was the best in the world and promised it would last for centuries, but on May 1st Maduro said the country needs a new one. He is going to call a “constituent assembly” to write it, although he was vague on how its members would be chosen. Some might be elected, and others would be chosen from “social organisations” (i.e. his cronies).

The Chavez constitution does not give Maduro the authority to do this, but the man is desperate. He needs an excuse to postpone elections he knows he would lose, and this is the best he can come up with. It won’t work, because the opposition understands his game and will not accept it. The country is drifting towards civil war.

“I don’t want a civil war,” Maduro said while announcing his constituent assembly, but he is laying the foundations for one. He might even win it, in the short term, if the army and police stay loyal to him. But in the longer run he really does risk ending up like Mussolini: executed without trial and hanging upside-down in a public square.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7. (“Maduro’s…today”)

The End of the Venezuelan “Revolution”

The Venezuelan opposition’s victory in Sunday’s election exceeded even their own hopes: they won more than two-thirds of the seats in the National Assembly. It may be the beginning of the end for the “Bolivarian revolution” launched by the late hero-leader Hugo Chavez seventeen years ago – but it will also plunge the country into a prolonged period of conflict and crisis.

Credit where credit is due: the election was conducted in an exemplary fashion although the government knew it was going to lose. And even when the scale of the opposition’s victory became clear, President Nicolas Maduro took the high road: “I call on all of our people to recognise these results peacefully, and to re-evaluate many political aspects of the revolution.”

However Maduro, who took over when Chavez died in March 2013, does not intend to preside over the funeral of Venezuelan socialism. When he said “our people”, he meant the Chavistas who still support the “revolution”, and the fact that they were now obviously a minority of the Venezuelan people went unmentioned. As did the fact that it was not actually a revolution at all: Chavez came to power legally and peacefully in the 1998 election.

The real question is whether Maduro and those around him will consent to leave power the same way. His vague rhetoric – “We have lost a battle today but now is when the fight for socialism begins” – is designed to leave that in some doubt. And it may be a real fight, perhaps including violence in the streets, because many Chavistas will feel duty-bound not to let this historic experiment fail.

Excuse the deliberate lapse into antique Marxist-speak, but that’s how they talk, and it illustrates how misleading the revolutionary rhetoric is. Because the Chavista era in Venezuelan history was not an historic experiment at all – not, at least, unless you think that building a welfare state with oil revenues is a revolutionary idea (in which case Saudi Arabia also has a revolutionary ideology).

True, the Chavistas are rather bigger on the notion of equality than the Saudi royal family, but what they were actually doing was not controversial in principle. They sought and won power through democratic means. Like left-wing politicians in early 20th-century European states, they then set about improving the income, health, housing and educational level of the bottom half of society, as they had promised they would.

The work of social uplift went a lot faster in Venezuela because of the oil money. (It has the world’s biggest oil reserves, and only 30 million people.) Chavez accomplished in a decade what took countries like Britain, France and Germany two generations. But by the end of that time the European countries had diversified industrial economies that could pay for a welfare state. All Chavez left his successors was oil.

So long as the oil income held up, Chavismo was invincible. Mismanagement and corruption grew, as they often do when money is plentiful. Arrogance grew too, as it usually does in governments long in power, and protests were increasingly met with physical or legal violence. Still Chavez and his successor Maduro won elections – until the oil price collapsed.

In the past eighteen months the world price for oil has fallen from $140 a barrel to only $40. Venezuela was already facing serious unemployment and very high inflation. Government-imposed price controls were already creating predictable shortages of staple goods like milk, rice, coffee, sugar, corn flour and cooking oil. But when the government’s income collapsed, all those problems went ballistic.

OF COURSE Maduro lost the election. In these circumstances, Chavez himself couldn’t have won it. Even Simon Bolivar couldn’t have won it. So now the challenge that both the Chavistas and the opposition face is how to manage an orderly transition that respects democracy, avoids violence, and preferably also preserves some of the social and educational gains of the past seventeen years.

The sheer scale of the opposition victory makes this tricky, since it has a “super-majority”: more than two-thirds of the seats in the National Assembly. In theory, that lets it do radical things like rewrite the constitution. In practice, however, the temptation to do that may not be very great. The opposition’s super-majority is vulnerable as it depends on a single seat (it holds 112 out of 167 seats).

The first order of business of the new National Assembly will be to pass an amnesty law freeing some seventy leading lights of the coalition’s various parties who were jailed on highly questionable grounds – but once freed they will try to reassert their leadership of those parties, which will probably undermine the fragile unity of the coalition.

Nothing the new opposition-dominated legislature does in the short term can change the dire economic situation. Maduro will still control the executive branch, with a presidential mandate that extends into 2019 – unless the opposition forces a recall referendum on his presidency, which it can legally do by next April. The “experiment” is over, but the crisis isn’t.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 11. (“The work…oil”; and “The sheer…seats”)

The Dog Ate My Constitution

17 August 2005

The Dog Ate My Constitution

By Gwynne Dyer

 “Ahmed, where’s your homework?”

 “The dog ate it, Miss. I had it all done, honest, but it was lying on the table this morning, and then the dog…”

 “That’s all right, dear. Take another week and give it to me next Monday.”

 The teachers in Iraq are not really so forgiving. The kids rarely have to write a whole constitution, but if they did it would be in on time: Iraqi teachers don’t accept lame excuses, and they don’t give extensions. Whereas the Iraqi parliament and its American overlords are another story entirely.

 The new Iraqi constitution was due to be handed in by 15 August. Then there would be a referendum to ratify it on October 15, and new national elections to produce a somewhat more credible government for Iraq in December. Those deadline were set by the US occupation authorities, who were desperately trying to create some “turning point” after which the country would stabilise and American casualties would start to fall.

 The appointment of an “interim Iraqi government” to replace direct US rule in June 2004 – the so-called “hand-over of sovereignty” – didn’t do the trick. Neither did last January’s elections (which were boycotted by the Sunni Arabs, the core of the resistance movement), nor the emergence of a more-or-less elected government in May after months of haggling. Now Washington’s hopes of a happy ending are pinned on the new constitution.

 “We don’t want any delays. Now’s the time to get to get on with it,” said US Defence Secretary Don Rumsfeld in late July, and Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani, the president of the current version of an Iraqi government, promised the US ambassador: “There will be no delay.” But there was.

 The Kurds of northern Iraq and the Islamic religious parties who claim to represent the Shia Arabs of southern Iraq have agreed to turn the country into a federal state. That gives the Kurds control over their own area (and their own oil), and a better shot at breaking away to create their own country at some future time. Federalism also suits the Shia religious parties, since it gives them the rest of Iraq’s oil and effective freedom to impose Islamic law over most of Iraq.

 The big losers were the Sunni Arabs of central Iraq, the traditional ruling group, who would end up with no oil and permanent Shia domination. So they rejected the Kurdish-Shia draft, and the 15 August deadline arrived with no agreement. Did the National Assembly dissolve itself and call new elections? No, it just gave the drafting committee one more week to agree on a new constitution. Who could blame them if the dog had eaten their homework?

 President George W. Bush greeted this failure with his customary optimism: “I applaud the heroic efforts of the Iraqi negotiators…Their efforts are a tribute to democracy and an example that difficult problems can be resolved peacefully through debate, negotiation and compromise.” So another week of debate and negotiation passed, but no compromise emerged. Did the National Assembly dissolve itself on 22 July? No, of course not.

 The Kurdish and Shia Arab negotiators simply handed their joint draft over to the National Assembly as the final product. True, there was no consensus on its contents, but they insisted that technically the deadline had been met – and then they gave themselves three more days to work on extracting Sunni Arab consent to the contents. President Bush hailed this as an “amazing event” and declared: “It’s a very hopeful period. The Iraqi people are working hard to reach a consensus.”

 The last deadline expired on Thursday night, and of course the Sunni Arab representatives had still not budged on the issue of federalism. They would be dead men if they did, killed by their own people: “99 percent of Sunnis are unhappy (with the constitution),” explained Saleh al-Motlak, one of their chief negotiators.

 It now seems likely that the National Assembly will not even be asked to vote on the new constitution (the rules only said that it had to be “presented” to the legislators), in order to avoid exposing the depth of opposition to it among Sunnis and secular Shias. The referendum will be held on 15 October as arranged, but the outcome is unpredictable, as it fails if only three of Iraq’s eighteen provinces vote against the constitution by a two-thirds majority. Washington originally wrote that rule in order to give its Kurdish allies a veto, but it gives a similar veto to the four central provinces where Sunni Arabs are the overwhelming majority of the population.

 Even if the constitution is approve in the October referendum, the armed revolt among the Sunni Arabs will continue, because their concerns have essentially been ignored. By Tuesday of last week (23 August), President Bush sounded quite testy about that: “This talk about the Sunnis rising up. I mean the Sunnis have got to make a choice. Do they want to live in a society that’s free, or do they want to live in violence?”

 Unfortunately for him, the Sunni Arabs of Iraq have defined their choices rather differently, and the insurgency will continue regardless of any new constitution.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 13. (“The appointment…constitution”; and “It now…population”)

Note that the first sentence of paragraph 13 (“It now seems likely…”) is subject to change.