Democratic backsliding: a textbook example


Lust and Waldner (2015) argue that “backsliding should be understood as changes that negatively affect competitive elections, liberties and accountability”. If you saw the last video, you know I could leave it at that and call it a day. But instead, I’d like to comment on how each of those qualities has been affected in this textbook case.

Venezuelan opposition has been complaining about elections being fraudulent for years. Even though Venezuela has electronic voting and the polling stations usually close between 6.30-7.30pm on election day, we haven’t had a single electoral result announced before midnight in the past ten years. Moreover, the National Electoral Council (CNE) is manifestly chavista. The whole thing is as clear as mud.

But the negative affectation of elections reached new lows in 2016 and has only worsened since. Let’s run over some events that have taken place in the last two years:

2016: The opposition calls for a recall referendum (it’s in the Constitution). The CNE is responsible for regulating how this was to take place. After the most cumbersome, delayed and unjust process possible, the referendum was “indefinitely suspended”.

2017: Maduro calls for the establishment of a National Constituent Assembly (ANC) to write a new Constitution. The explanation of this event in the video is fairly good. What the video doesn’t mention is that the company in charge of the machines used for voting, Smartmatic, which denounced the difference in the results, is no longer in charge of electoral voting in Venezuela.

2018: The ANC calls for an early presidential election, which is to take place on May 20th. 44 countries say they will not recognize the results, because they don’t recognize the ANC. Opposition coalition MUD is not presenting candidates because it doesn’t want to legitimize the election.

Now lets review accountability. The video mentions how Supreme Court justices were replaced with Maduro-supporters before the recently elected opposition-majority National Assembly (AN) was sworn into office. Even though there’d been other preoccupying developments in this regard (such as the imprisonment of judges), the swift appointment of these magistrates was definitely the mortal blow of judicial power independence in Venezuela. Their following decisions, which systematically curtailed the powers of the AN until attempting to eliminate is, as the video explains, confirm this.

The soon-after ousted Attorney General denounced irregularities in the appointment process and requested the AN to nullify the appointments and designate new justices. The AN complied. The Supreme Court didn’t recognize the appointments. The jurists went into hiding after three of them were imprisoned in under a week. In October 2017, the justices met in Washington and installed a parallel judicial power  (with zero ability to execute its judgments) from the Headquarters of the OAS, called the “TSJ in exile”. They recently “prosecuted” Maduro for corruption charges – he is, according to them, no longer president.

A review of liberties is, perhaps, the easiest and saddest. Last November, the ANC adopted the “Law against hate”, under which crimes such as “sharing hate messages in social media” can carry up to twenty years imprisonment. People, including minors, have already been literally taken from their homes for their social media posts and Whatsapp groups. Coupled with the world’s highest inflation, virtually no free media and political persecution, it’s not hard to conclude Venezuelans are not free. The Freedom House Report 2017 agrees with that assessment.

So in a country with rigged elections, no independent judiciary and no freedom, can we please stop talking about backsliding, and call it democratic breakdown?


This week’s question: Find one multimedia source that explains an incident of political transition (change of the political system or backsliding) in the country of your choice. Write your thoughts on it.


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