By Jeremy Morgan
Latin American Herald Tribune staff
CARACAS – The National Assembly passed a bill setting out a new law under which the distribution of seats after an election is to be weighted towards parties and individuals who win the largest share of votes.
In the wake of the vote at the end of a brief second debate on Friday, all that’s required now for the legislation to go on to the statute book is for President Hugo Chávez to sign it into law. Since the proposal is said to have emanated from the presidential palace, Miraflores, that’s being taken as a done deal.
The Electoral Processes Law has predictably stirred up a storm among Chávez’s critics in the Opposition. They claim it represents the end of proportional representation in Venezuela.
However, the smaller parties allied to the government – Patria Para Todos (PPT) and the Venezuelan Communist Party (PCV) – have also voiced misgivings. Their fear is that the change will push them into political irrelevance because their smaller number of votes won’t count for so much any more.
The government has shrugged off such murmurs of discontent with the argument that the majority opinion should have the final say. Government advisors talk about “the tyranny of the minority” impeding social progress.
Few voices were raised against the legislation in the chamber, which is all but entirely dominated by Chávez’s ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) and its minor allies. The mainstream Opposition isn’t represented after abruptly pulling out of the last parliamentary elections in 2005 alleging unfairness and a lack of transparency in a decision that’s highly questioned to this day.
Most of the small handful of dissenting voices in the chamber hail from Podemos, the social democratic party which once supported Chávez before breaking with him over his plan to rid the constitution of a ban on successive re-election, and a few other legislators who once also backed him.
Deputy Ricardo Gutiérrez of Podemos, a former vice president of the Assembly, warned that the legislation amounted to a threat to the liberties and political rights of Venezuelans because it represented a “regression to the old system of closed parties.”
Deputy Pastora Medina, an independent who labels herself as belonging to the Humanitarian Front, complained that there hadn’t been a proper debate on the real issues raised by the proposal.
At the end of a brief and lackluster discussion, PSUV Deputy Darío Vivas waved aside qualms about the supposedly imminent disappearance of proportional representation. This principle, he said, had been “clearly established” in the text of the legislation “that we have proposed and voted upon.”
In the event, the vote was a foregone conclusion, a stroll in the park for the PSUV. Even the dissenters didn’t vote against. Not for the first time, Podemos abstained and PPT deputies were said to have been divided between the two options.
In technical terms, the Bill looks like tinkering. Until now, 60% of the seats have been distributed on the basis of votes cast for an individual candidate, with the other 40% based on votes for lists. The proportion is being changed to 70% and 30%, respectively.
Chávez has normally won about 60% of the votes cast at elections since he was first voted into power in late 1998, assuming office early the following year. The exception was a referendum in late 2007 on his first bid to change the rules on re-election, which he lost by a narrow margin of about two percentage points. His will prevailed at a second -- and probably unconstitutional -- referendum on the question in February this year.
Critics claim the Electoral processes Law will significantly shift the balance of power in the chamber after the next parliamentary elections. These are due to be held later this year, theoretically in October, given that parliamentary mandates are for five years.
However, for some time now there’s been talk in government circles of pushing back the vote to coincide with the next round of state and municipal elections in 2010. This is depicted by the Opposition as signs that the Chávez camp is losing its nerve ahead of the next elections, as is this new Electoral Processes Law.