Chavez’s Win Proves ‘Elected Autocrat’ Isn’t an Oxymoron

Photographer: Elizabeth Lippman/Bloomberg

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Photographer: Elizabeth Lippman/Bloomberg

Hugo Chavez is something of a challenge to the worldview of many rich-country observers. His election victory this week has given him, health permitting, a new six-year term as Venezuela’s president. He’s the leading elected autocrat in Latin America and maybe the world.

“Elected autocrat” is a confusing category. According to the model that prevailed for decades after 1945, there are really just two kinds of state: free and unfree. Democracy, good. Autocracy, bad. Chavez represents a third way, one that might be catching on. (Think of the former Soviet Union and the Arab Spring.) He teaches us an important lesson: Democracy isn’t enough.

The reaction to his latest election victory is revealing. Some, a small minority to be sure, celebrate it as democracy at work. Chavez won, in this view, because his policies are popular and rightly so: See how he has driven down poverty, using the country’s oil wealth to give the poor jobs, health care and houses. It’s democratic socialism in action.

Most others see it differently. They’ve noticed the expansion of state control, the systematic erosion of the private sphere, the erasure of checks and balances, the cult of personality, the clientelism, corruption, collapsing productivity and stupendous waste. They see an epic failure. What’s telling, though, is their reluctance to admit this could have happened in a “real” democracy.

Free Vote

The vote was free but not fair -- that’s the cliche. It’s an evasion. Venezuela’s election wasn’t rigged. Nobody disputes that the country wanted Chavez. Nobody questions his winning by 55 percent to 44 percent. Venezuela is indeed democracy at work -- at work, yet gone tragically wrong.

Of course, Chavez used the power of the state to buy votes and put the opposition at a disadvantage. Yes, he exploited those advantages to an unusual degree, and could do it because he’d already ground down many of the country’s constitutional protections. But this line of argument is awkwardly far- reaching. If governments in “real democracies” don’t buy votes with public money or exploit the other electoral advantages of incumbency, then the number of such states shrinks to the point of meaninglessness.

Look at the money spent on the U.S. presidential campaigns, for instance. A month from now, ask the losing side whether that vote was “fair” as well as free.

It’s better to admit that Venezuela is a democracy -- that Chavez stands re-elected by the will of the people -- but that democracy is not enough. This isn’t just semantics. Chavez makes it easier to see how democracies can be corrupted, how important it is to arrest that decay early on, and that illiberal democracies like Venezuela are not necessarily anomalies or exceptions.

Chavez has exploited two advantages -- his own political genius and the windfall of Venezuelan oil. He came to power in 1998, before oil prices surged, and at the beginning was a constitutional reformer rather than an economic radical. He pressed for a referendum to create a Constituent Assembly charged with drafting a new constitution. The new rules shifted powers from Congress to the presidency, establishing the template of chavismo.

Sometimes he overreached. There were setbacks, but the basic pattern was established: Polarize opinion, marginalize the opposition, weaken his own accountability (except to the electorate as a whole) and gather the levers of power in the presidency.

Piggybank Democracy

When the oil money began to flow, Chavez expanded social spending massively, and succeeded in reducing poverty. He also spent the money shrewdly to maximize political advantage. Increasingly, the government disbursed funds at his own discretion, through numerous visible and invisible channels, without oversight by any competing center of power.

Chavez has made social spending a gift of the president. Lack of oversight also made it easier to co-opt leaders of the country’s diminishing private sector -- competitive bidding is not a hallmark of Venezuela’s public procurement -- further increasing the presidency’s grip on the country’s resources, and further undermining the political opposition.

Despite all that, that opposition managed something of a revival in this week’s election. More unified than usual, and under the competent leadership of Henrique Capriles Radonski, the anti-Chavez coalition mounted a serious challenge. It’s a tribute to the damage that Chavez has inflicted on the country.

Oil notwithstanding, the costs of Chavez’s policies aren’t subtle. The country’s infrastructure, starved of funds and mismanaged by the president’s cronies, is falling apart. Revenue from oil, a sector run as a presidential fiefdom, is far less than it should be thanks to egregious inefficiency. Power failures plague a country rich in energy. The rule of law is failing and crime is rampant. Foreign investors steer clear, and talented Venezuelans choose between a future on Chavez’s terms or emigration.

Yet Venezuela is a democracy and Chavez is still popular. Indeed, democracy has worked better for him than outright autocracy, which would have aligned domestic and foreign opposition more effectively. Illiberal democracies, under the right circumstances, can be stronger than outright tyrannies. They lend themselves better to divide and rule.

The lessons of Chavez are worth pondering everywhere. Democracy isn’t enough. Illiberal democracy is no oxymoron. Political competition, dispersal of power and commitment to limited government are as important to a country’s political and economic well-being as the vote.

(Clive Crook is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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To contact the writer of this article: Clive Crook at clive.crook@gmail.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: James Gibney at jgibney5@bloomberg.net.

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