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 Mr. 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 Mr. 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, which according to polls stood no chance of defeating Mr. Chavez's party when it chose to boycott the election. Opposition leaders pointed to flaws in the voting system that might have prevented secret balloting, but this seemed a pretext after election authorities agreed to make changes. By withdrawing, the opposition made it impossible to challenge Mr. Chavez through a democratic legislature and renewed questions about whether its commitment to democracy is any greater than that of the president. Like Mr. Chavez, some opposition leaders once backed a military coup. Its disastrous failure ought to have established the principle that only a movement clearly committed to democracy can hope to defeat Mr. 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. Mr. 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. Mr. 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 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 Mr. Chavez and the opposition that, among other things, would be aimed at "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 from Mr. Chavez's conduct, that is exactly what he wants.