Politics, Democracy and Participation
Consultor político-electoral, residenciado en Caracas. Dimitris tiene estudios de Doctorado en la Universidad de Bath (Inglaterra) y Maestría de la Universidad East Anglia (Inglaterra). Ha sido investigador invitado al IESA Business School, ha sido consultor para organizaciones internacionales como el Centro Carter, Capel, Noref. En Venezuela ha colaborado con organizaciones nacionales como el OGCD entre otros.
Does it make sense to write about politics, democracy and citizen participation in a country that most analysts describe as an autocracy or worse yet, as a dictatorship?
The next paragraphs will answer this question by tackling arguments that range from how important democracy is for Venezuelans as a political system, to how the current formal institutions operate, to citizen participation in defining their political destiny in the past year.
Democracy as a sine qua non for Venezuelans
Most of the population in Venezuela is convinced that democracy is the best form of government. This feeling is reflected by polls conducted over the years and by high voter turnout rates. The well-known regional polling service Latinobarometro explains the “Venezuelan paradox” as a high percentage of Venezuelans who favor a democratic regime (78%) that is not matched by the political reality of recent times nor the assessments carried out by the country’s experts. Latinobarometro concludes that although “Venezuelans support democracy, they are not satisfied with it, and only 25% of them believes the government governs for all people.”
The dichotomy between citizens’ preference for democracy and what they experience even has to do with the use of certain words in the political lingo. Terms that are generally positive, such as democracy, participation, human rights and dialogue, have been part of party-driven propaganda to legitimize projects and actions that are minimally democratic.
This makes it difficult to connect these words with their real meaning and with the concepts they represent for citizens. For this reason, while Venezuelans still show a strong preference for ‘democracy’ as an abstract term over any other type of political system, at the same time most of the population seems to not be satisfied with the current political regime.
Although the Constitution and political actors of the current government insist on using the official term “participatory democracy,” real actions have led the system to a path of authoritarianism and exclusion that have in turn led to questionable popular support. This reality demonstrates that the population and its government are not speaking the same language and, worse yet, that both democratic practice and political communication are deteriorating.
The current state of democracy in Venezuela
Analyzing the state of democracy in Venezuela requires differentiating between formal political institutions and actual democratic practice in citizens’ daily lives. Based on this, in general the concept of democracy includes two approximations to the role of citizens within a democratic regime. The first approximation is that citizens would express themselves through representatives; the second one is participation, defined as direct action by citizens in the political sphere. Both approximations are not mutually exclusive, but varying types of democracy give different weight to each one.
In classical democracy, participation maximizes the citizens’ role. In ancient Greece, participation was more than a right; the “political person” was different from the common citizen; the political person handled his own home and had a duty to help govern the community of homes known as the polis. According to Pericles, “a man who is not interested in politics and only handles his own affairs is an idiot,” (from the Greek word ‘idiotis,’ a person who only handles personal affairs).
On the other hand, in a representative democracy, rulers are elected to represent their constituents and act on their behalf. This type of government must comply with a series of minimum guarantees to continue being a democracy. These guarantees include constitutionality, free and regular elections with universal suffrage, freedom of assembly and association for civil society, and equality of basic human rights. Additionally, it is essential that citizens are informed about the different proposals that allow them to make a decision on their votes, thus the system must guarantee the free flow of information.
Venezuela is currently experiencing a systematic violation of the Constitution, and a blatant restriction of citizens’ rights to participate in politics, to be informed and to have their will respected. The two events that best reflect these violations are when the government prevented a recall referendum in 2016 against the president, a referendum that is guaranteed in the country’s constitution, and the violations of regularly scheduled elections as explained in the Magna Carta. Similarly, there have been multiple violations on citizens’ human rights and an increase in the violation of the right to be informed via multiple restrictions to news channels and censorship and self-censorship throughout the country’s media outlets.
Closing some channels, opening others
Paradoxically, whereas the rights that enable a representative democracy are being increasingly restrained, the country has also seen the strengthening of direct action from citizens. Although it looks like an oxymoron, citizen participation in Venezuela in 2017 demonstrated a significant capacity for resiliency that is inversely proportional to the behavior of formal institutions (political parties, government branches, etc.).
Between April and August 2017, thousands of citizens protested daily for four months. The protests in Venezuela demanded social and political changes. Similarly, citizens, along with the MUD coalition, organized a referendum in July 2016 that international observers assessed as a “relevant political event, organized away from voting institutions due to pluralism spaces being closed and based on the conditions for institutions to develop tasks, duties and responsibilities.”
Citizens’ direct action throughout 2017 had a pendulum relationship with the leadership and role of political parties in Venezuela, especially opposition parties. This relationship was characterized by political parties being at the forefront in some organizational or political agenda actions, attempts by political parties and their leaders to co-opt citizens during the protests, and autonomy from citizens in decisions and actions that they participated in.
The distance between citizens and political parties has deepened since the 15 October 2017 elections. This is due to the salient deterioration of the structure of political parties stemming from their lack of leadership and vision, from low credibility in the promises they make, and from society’s inherent dynamism. This increased distance resulted in a deepening of the crisis amongst opposition parties, who decided not to send candidates to the December 2017 election. It also resulted in many independent candidates who had had a presence in civil society and social movements in the country.
This demonstrates that a part of society is not happy with how the State is operating nor with the current power relations in politics and amongst political parties, and that it seeks direct participation in the administration public affairs. Direct action and citizen participation, based on proactive acts and democratic and inclusionary principles, is a positive development in democracy because people can represent themselves, get involved in political processes and enable social changes by their own means. Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King used direct action protest as a way to achieve human rights and social justice.
Dialogue, understanding and fair elections
The political reality in Venezuela demonstrates that democracy is neither a stable nor a monolithic phenomenon. Democracy has the same dynamics as society itself, which has evolved throughout the centuries and is a fluid relationship amongst society, institutions and the political situation in each country.
The Venezuelan political system, formally called participatory, in practice behaves as a representative system and demonstrates a salient setback towards a regime that is more excluding and repressive. This has led many citizens to direct action away from formally-established institutional channels.
Notwithstanding, direct action and citizen participation as an emergency, reactionary plan to arbitrary acts by institutions is not a viable government alternative for a nation, nor does it suppose the only safe way for “the people” to assume power. Representation and participation must co-exist and feed each other to achieve a functioning modern society.
In Venezuela, at this moment, the foundations of a representative democracy are being obliterated despite an increase in citizen participation, and these foundations are necessary to have a well-functioning political system. The country needs to recover its own institutions and the only way to achieve this is through dialogue, understanding, respect and, of course, free and fair elections.
Traducción cortesía de Irene Liscano