Earlier this month, President Nicolás Maduro announced constitutional reforms which aim to address the current political and economic crisis in Venezuela. The proposed reforms hinge on setting up a constituent assembly that would draft a new Constitution and include a key role for Communal Councils. Far from deepening democracy, however, these proposals have the potential to make the country more authoritarian since these Communal Councils were created to bypass elected local government representatives (when needed) and secure the ruling party’s grip on power.
When former middle-rank army officer and failed coup leader, Hugo Chavez, eventually came to power in 1998 with over 56% of the popular vote, he launched the “Bolivarian Revolution” (PDF) which promised, amongst other things, to implement a new model of participatory democracy.
In contrast with the old Puntofijo Pact (PDF) the idea was to create a new geometry of power (PDF) where popular power would be redistributed by a bottom-up decision-making approach. The building blocks for this new system were the Communal Councils.
Almost twenty years later, Venezuela’s authoritarian regime has become so afraid of the electoral arena that a recall referendum was blocked while national elections scheduled for 2016 seemed to be indefinitely “postponed”.
After weeks of unrest, these postponed elections have now been announced for December 2017 in a bid to make the country accept Maduro’s unorthodox proposals to create a Constituent Assembly by the end of July 2017.
Venezuela is suffering one of the worst economic and political crises in decades with scaling up violence
Food and medicines are scarce, inflation has exceeded 700%, the homicide rate has reached 92/100,000 inhabitants, and harassment of the media and censorship have been on the increase.
Judicial guarantees and the rule of law have been replaced by impunity and repression in the streets which has resulted in 67 deaths and left thousands wounded and 334 people illegally detained by military courts; the number of prisoners of conscience has reached 251, according to Foro Penal Venezolano.
Facing mounting criticism from its regional neighbours, Venezuela left the Organisation of American States (OAS) and has been suspended from Mercosur, the Southern Common Market.
Would a citizen constituent assembly strengthen or destroy democracy?
Communal councils, as self-governance participatory mechanisms, were seen as the foundation of the “Socialism of the 21st Century” project in 2006. Their aim was to institutionalise popular power through the full and direct participation of communities in public affairs.
“Communes” consist of several Communal Councils, and at the top of this tree sits the Communal State, which is formed by a set of communes. This Communal State was created in 2010 (PDF), despite proposals for it being defeated by referendum in 2007.
Its presence creates a parallel state based on direct representation which contradicts the representative democracy enshrined in current 1999 Venezuelan Constitution, spearheaded by Chávez himself. It is based on the open election of spokespeople in citizen´s assemblies rather than through universal, free and secret suffrage.
Additionally, it directly challenges the Constitutional State by moving away from competitive elections, such as those that thwarted the Government’s plans in 2007 and then again in 2015, when the National Assembly elected an overwhelming majority of opposition deputies.
The current proposal: Communal Councils as the ‘seed’ of the Constituent Assembly
The proposed “citizen constituent assembly” that would reform the current Constitution of 1999 is another step further away from democracy. Even members of the chavismo establishment including Attorney General Luisa Ortega Diaz, declared their objections to it.
According to the constitution, a president can convene a new constitutional assembly but it is up to the population to decide – via a referendum – whether to confirm or reject this proposal. President Maduro is proposing to elect 540 people, from lists of ‘selected representatives’ from different sectors of the population, communal councils and communes among others, mocking both the letter and the spirit of the Constitution.
With the support of the Supreme Court, which last week announced that universal elections could be substituted by citizen´s assemblies, it is highly expected that the constituent assembly deputies will be chosen from groups that support government.
Is this democracy?
Three reasons why giving constitutional status to communal councils would be insufficient to solve the crisis
1. Our empirical research into the topic shows that communal councils are participatory mechanisms that are co-opted by the government through a combination of partisan (PDF) and clientelistic practices.
Their lack of autonomy and accountability, in addition to their close relationship with the central government (as they have been created from a top-down approach and assigned to the Presidential Committee of Popular Power), make these structures more susceptible to undue pressures in exchange for political support.
Job discrimination, exclusion from government funds or receiving price-controlled food and medicines in exchange for supporting the government in elections, are established habits sponsored by the central government over the years, particularly as wide support started to wane with declining living standards.
It has been widely reported how communal councils are used to distribute the CLAP (packages of government-rationed food at controlled prices) to members that are considered sympathisers of the ruling party.
Giving constitutional status to these popular assemblies could increase the exclusion and discrimination of the opposition whose ranks are swelling with the worsening of the political, economic and humanitarian crisis.
2. Communal councils were designed to overlap Municipal government functions and serve as an alternative way to retain power even if the opposition managed to win elections. If these self-government mechanisms assume constitutional powers, they could also assume the powers currently held by majors, governors and the National Assembly.
The Communal State would defy the actual political and administrative division of powers increasing the conflict of representation and further weakening representative democracy. This means that most decisions will be made by the communal councils and communes as government calls them ´´the expression of popular power´´.
3. Granting constitutional status to the communal councils will not solve the severe political and economic crisis since they hold neither enough political power or possess productive capabilities to deal with the consequences of years of economic mismanagement by the government. Most likely, the councils will reduce the spaces where the opposition can challenge the government.
The battle for legitimacy
On the one hand, the executive branch owns the judiciary branches, the use of force and now the participatory spaces such as communal councils and communes. On the other hand, the opposition has the majority at the National Assembly but this year it has been officially disregarded by the government.
In this critical inflection point for the country, the opposition is already practically barred from bringing political and social change and, despite being more united than ever as a political coalition, the only space to confront government´s power seems to be the street.
About the authors
Maria Aguado Álvarez de Sotomayor is an IDS Alumna who wrote her dissertation on the ‘Politics at the margins: Control and dissidence in revolutionary Venezuela’. She now works for a research center on human rights and social justice in Colombia. Dr Lizbeth Navas-Aleman is an Honorary Associate at IDS, and a Venezuelan national.