A quarter-century ago, Poland’s c ommunist government supposed that it could allow a free election while rigging the legal structure around it, so that it would remain in power even if it lost. It was a fatal miscalculation. The subsequent vote for the opposition Solidarity movement was so overwhelming that it forced the regime to cede power despite the rules it had established. Poland had demonstrated the raw power of a decisive popular vote — and defined a conundrum that autocratic governments have struggled with ever since.
Two particularly noxious regimes now are confronted with what might be called the Polish c ommunists’ dilemma. The military regime of Burma and the self-styled “Bolivarian socialists” of Venezuela each staged elections this fall on the expectation that, even if they lost, the constitutional and political structures they created to guarantee their power would save them. Burma’s generals wrote constitutional provisions granting themselves a quarter of the parliament’s seats, as well as control of powerful ministries, regardless of the election results. In Caracas, the Chavista regime of Nicolás Maduro told itself that it would still have the presidency, the military and the courts on its side even if it lost its majority in the National Assembly.
Neither reckoned on being swamped by an opposition landslide. But Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won 390 of the 498 seats that were up for election in Burma’s bicameral legislature. Venezuela’s opposition Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) did almost as well, capturing 112 of 167 seats in the N ational A ssembly. Both blew past barriers the regimes assumed would contain them. The NLD has the votes to elect Burma’s next president on its own; the MUD has a two-thirds majority, which means it can rewrite the Venezuelan constitution and shorten Maduro’s remaining term or subject him to a recall referendum.
What to do? It’s fascinating to watch the two regimes try to maneuver their way out of the corner that confounded the Poles — especially as they have embraced nearly opposite strategies. Burma’s generals so far are trying the path of negotiation, hoping to strike a bargain that will preserve their prerogatives. Venezuela’s top Chavistas, in contrast, seem bent on reversing or militantly resisting the opposition victory — and hoping they can win the resulting power struggle.
So far, the Burmese approach appears to be yielding results. True, Aung San Suu Kyi says she will choose the next president, because she is banned from taking the office, and control the government from “above.” But senior NLD officials are also saying they will move slowly, if at all, to challenge the military’s privileges, including its control of a large swath of the economy.
“We have to give a guarantee that military enterprises will continue,” the chief of the NLD’s economic committee, Han Tha Myint, told the Wall Street Journal last week. He added that “we don’t need to turn the present bureaucracy upside down.”
In Caracas, opposition leaders also appeared ready to negotiate. But Maduro and his most powerful deputy, National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello, embraced a radical, and highly risky, strategy of confrontation.
Since the Dec. 6 vote, Cabello has convoked a new, unelected “communal Congress” and installed it in the parliament building. Maduro has hinted that the outgoing N ational A ssembly, which remains in office until Jan. 5, may transfer its powers to the new “Congress.” Meanwhile, the ruling party rushed last week to appoint 13 new members to the supreme court, which was already under government control.
All these steps were flagrantly unconstitutional. But the most ominous measure floated by the Chavistas goes still further: a court action to overturn the election of 22 opposition deputies. Last Tuesday, opposition leaders called a news conference to announce the government was going through with what would amount to a nuclear option. Hours later, the supreme court mysteriously responded that it had received no such petition.
Venezuelan analysts believe the episode may have been a sign of a divide in the regime. The intransigence of Maduro and Cabello is likely encouraged by the regime’s hard-line Cuban advise rs, but it is also rooted in corruption. Cabello is reportedly a prime target of a U.S. federal drug trafficking investigation, while two of Maduro’s nephews are already being held in New York on trafficking charges. With U.S. prosecutors involved, the Chavistas, unlike Burma’s generals, cannot negotiate a pass.
On the other hand, the Venezuelan military, including Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino López, has no interest in tactics that may drive Venezuelans into the streets and leave the a rmy with the job of putting down a “people power” rebellion. That would be the likely result of reversing the election results. So it could be that Venezuela’s victorious opposition, like Burma’s, will end up negotiating with the generals.