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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Chavez Set to Govern With a Rubber Stamp

Venezuela's democratic system, which has been crumbling under pressure from President Hugo Chavez, has taken another lurch toward collapse. In elections for the National Assembly held Dec. 4, at least 75 percent of voters chose not to go to the polls, despite threats from government officials that state workers would lose their jobs if they did not. A fifth of those who did turn out cast blank ballots rather than support pro-government candidates; opposition parties withdrew from the election days before it occurred. The result is that Chavez's supporters, with a mandate from 20 percent of the electorate, will occupy all 167 seats in the assembly. The legislature, like the court system before it, will be converted from a check on Chavez's power to a rubber stamp. Its top priority, National Assembly President Nicolas Maduro said after the vote, would be "to legislate so that Chavez rules not until 2021, but until 2030."

Responsibility for this grievous development lies in part with the Venezuelan opposition. By withdrawing, the opposition made it impossible to challenge Chavez through a democratic legislature and renewed questions about whether its commitment to democracy is any greater than that of the president. Like Chavez, some opposition leaders once backed a military coup. Its disastrous failure ought to have made it evident that only a movement clearly committed to democracy can hope to defeat Chavez's plans for a "21st-century socialist revolution."

It is those plans that have been the main cause of Venezuela's turmoil and the disintegration of a flawed but free political system. Chavez's supporters control the national election authority, and missions from both the European Union and the Organization of American States found that much of the public distrusts the electoral system. Chavez has cowed the privately owned opposition press with a draconian anti-slander law and charged the leaders of the independent election-monitoring group Sumate with treason for accepting $31,000 in funding from the U.S.-based National Endowment for Democracy. Other criminal cases have been brought against prominent opposition politicians, trade unionists and human rights activists.

The OAS mission suggested that Venezuelan democracy might still be rescued through "a frank, inclusive and good-faith dialogue" between Chavez and the opposition that, among other things, would be aimed at a "strengthening of the principle of separation, independence and balance of powers -- a basic principle of all presidential democracies." For now, such a democratic balance is utterly absent in Venezuela; and judging by Chavez's conduct, that is exactly what he wants.

This comment first appeared as an editorial in The Washington Post.