Let me caveat the rest of this post with a reiteration of the fact that I am not a defender of the Venezuelan government. Nor should you be. Mark Weisbrot, a smart fellow, makes a bit of a fool of himself by trying. (One of our commentors makes a rather better effort, but ultimately fails.) I am on the record as thinking that the current bout of violence and repression is both the government’s fault and rather inexplicably stupid.
Had Maduro held his calm, the violence would have been minimal and passing. The fact that he did not and put gasoline on the flames comes as a surprise to me.
In short, the Venezuelan government is run by incompetents. But is it a dictatorship?
To my surprise, I discovered on Caracas Chronicles that one of the most-prominent political databases, Polity IV, says yes, the Bolivarian Republic is a dictatorship.
What is Polity IV? In the words of Anabella Abadi and Bárbara Lira it is “a project of the Center for Systemic Peace, which codifies characteristics of political regimes in order to classify them — in opposite extremes — as ‘Institutionalized Democracies’ or ‘Autocratic Regimes’. To formulate the indicator, Polity IV considers the election mechanism for the Executive Power (meaning regulations, competition and open participation); institutional constraints on the exercise of power by the Executive Power; and the degree of regulation and political competition.”
It is a good database; I have used it myself in academic work. But something seemed odd about the rapid decline in Venezuela’s polity score after the establishment of the Bolivarian Republic:
So I decided to dig into the numbers and see what was going on.
The basic polity score has two components: democracy and autocracy. The total score is determined by subtracting one from the other. In 1998, when Hugo Chávez first won election, the democracy score was 8 and the autocracy score was zero, for a total score of 8. That made it a solid democracy: France was 6 in 1958 and ranks at 9 today.
So what happened?
Well, in 1999 the score dropped by one. The fall was due to a fall in the “executive constraints” score from 6 to 5, presumably as a result of the new constitution. The highest value is 7. By definition, the index gives all parliamentary systems a value of 7, since the legislature can depose the executive. The U.S. also gets a score of 7, since the president cannot introduce legislation. A value of 5 is defined as “substantial constraints on the executive” and still falls well within democratic norms. (Page 24.)
There is a little bit of wiggle room here since a ranking of 6 on “executive constraints” is just an intermediate placeholder. In other words, the difference between 6 and 5 is not defined. But to be honest, the drop was fair: the 1999 constitution gave the president the power to dissolve the National Assembly, which is a powerful tool. (One might not consider executive constraints to be the best measure of democracy and quibble with the way parliamentary systems get the highest score, of course.)
OK, then, fall in 1999 explained. No problem.
In 2001 the score falls again by one point. This time, the fall in the was due to a fall in the “competitiveness of participation” score from 4 to 3. This variable is a little odd. The top value is 5, or “competitive.” OK, gotcha. A value of 4 is an ill-defined transitional category. A score of 3 means that “parochial or ethnic-based political factions that regularly compete for political influence in order to promote particularist agendas and favor group members to the detriment of common, secular, or cross-cutting agendas.” (Page 26.)
I am not entirely sure that I understand what that means in the Venezuelan case.
Even if I did, the fall does not have to do with the Second Enabling Act of 2001, under which the Assembly gave President Chávez temporary decree power. That should have changed the executive constraint score, not the political competitiveness score. (The law did not change the executive constraint score because the Act was constitutional; moreover the previous constitution contained a similar provision.) Anyway. the Second Enabling Act had been preceded by the First Enabling Act in 2000.
But what did happen in 2001 to cause the fall in the “competitiveness of participation”? I do not know. The drop is a bit mysterious. Not necessarily wrong, but not immediately obvious. Help?
In 2006, the executive constraint variable drops by another point. Now, one problem is that a score of 4 is still an undefined transitional category (page 24) but it seems justifiable. The Bolivarian Republic is still a point above the early years of the French Fifth Republic on the executive constraint tip, meaning that Hugo Chávez was more constrained than Charles de Gaulle.
A bigger problem is that the drop seems a little inexplicable. The Chavistas won a two-thirds majority in 2005, so the timing is off. Is it the scale of the Chavista presidential victory in ‘06? A score of 4 still involves an independent judiciary and some legislative autonomy, so it is not unreasonable, but it has a Potter Stewart feel to it.
Thus, 2006 is when Venezuela loses its status as an institutionalized democracy, but not as a democracy. Such a loss does indeed pass the Potter Stewart test, even if the timing is odd.
I am not entirely sure I understand it, but it is not unreasonable. Opinions on what happened in 2006? Right move, wrong timing?
Things fall apart in 2009, though, and that is where I get confused.
First, the summary. The polity score plunges eight points from 5 to −3. How do we get there?
- A one-point rise the “regulation of participation” variable from 2 to 3 raises the autocracy score from 0 to 1. (Polity = 4.)
- A one-point fall in executive constraints takes off two points by dropping the democracy score from 5 to 4 and raising the autocracy score from 1 to 2. (Polity = 2.)
- A one-point fall in “regulation of chief executive recruitment” from 3 to 2 drops democracy from 4 to 3. (Polity = 1.)
- A two-point fall in executive competition (to be explained) gets us the rest of the way there by dropping the democracy score from 3 to 1 and raising autocracy score from 2 to 4. (Polity = −2.)
How reasonable are these changes? From most to least:
- The first one makes sense, even if the timing is off. A value of 2 for “regulation of participation” means that “there are relatively stable and enduring political groups which compete for political influence at the national level — parties, regional groups, or ethnic groups, not necessarily elected — but there are few, recognized overlapping (common) interests.” (Page 26.) It also implies that political parties are unstable. The new value, 3, indicates that “political demands are characterized by incompatible interests and intransigent posturing among multiple identity groups and oscillate more or less regularly between intense factionalism and government favoritism.” That sure does define Venezuela under Chavismo! I might disagree with the timing, but not the change.
- The fall in executive constraints from 4 to 3 is still in the democratic zone, more or less, since it allows for an independent judiciary. But I am not sure that the constitutional changes approved that year justifies the drop. It seems reasonable, but once again, why 2009? There is an ad hockiness to the fall that I do not like.
- The fall in “regulation of chief executive recruitment” does not seem reasonable. A score of 3 means that chief executives are selected by a constitutional process, democratic or not. A score of 1 means violent transition. Venezuela moved from 3 to 2 in 2009, meaning that “chief executives are chosen by designation within the political elite, without formal competition (i.e., one-party systems or ‘rigged’ multiparty elections).” (Page 21.) I do not buy that Venezuelan elections were rigged after 2009.
- Finally, the drop in executive competition from the highest score of 3 to the lowest score of 1 means that the Polity IV index-makers believe that there was no democratic way to vote the president of the Bolivarian Republic out of office from 2009 onwards.
The putative −3, on the other hand, puts Venezuela with Ethiopia, Jordan, Burma, and Tajikistan and one point worse than Angola, Chad, Mauritania, Sudan, Togo and Singapore.
All ten of the countries in the above sentence are far less democratic than Venezuela. For all the incompetence of the Maduro government, a score of −3 does not pass the smell test.
Am I wrong?
* Gabon clearly ranks too high.