Lessons from Venezuela

Democracy interrupted: Lessons from Venezuela
Jakarta Post, May 24, 2002
Philips J Vermonte, Centre for Strategic and International Studies, Jakarta.

A study conducted jointly by two respectable institutions, the Institute for Economics and Social Research, Education and Information (LP3ES) and the Center for the Study of Development and Democracy (Cesda), concludes that the Indonesian Military (TNI) is still a major political player in the country’s politics.

The study reveals that the TNI is still trying to reassert its political control over the civilian leadership (The Jakarta Post, May 10). The question of putting the military under civilian control frequently appears in the process of democratization.

Unfortunately, in the case of Indonesia, the cohesiveness of civilian leadership as the principal requirement of erecting civilian supremacy is non-existent.

It is represented at least in continuing debates on the amendment process of Indonesia’s constitution.

The growing tendency from some part of civilian elites in the parliament to stop the process raises speculation that there will be a constitutional crisis, which many remind that the similar situation in the 1950s provided an entry point for the TNI to increase its social and political control.

Regarding this matter, recent political event in Venezuela provides lessons for Indonesia. The coup against the incumbent president Hugo Chavez aborted, then Chavez was able to regain his presidency. He revives his power with even more support from the armed forces, as well as from the Venezuelan people at large.

As widely reported, the saga begun when Chavez appointed new board of directors of the country’s state-owned companies. Venezuela’s trade unions protested the decision, organized a massive demonstration that turned into chaos after Chavez’s supporters faced off with the anti-government demonstrators. Amidst the crisis, a clique consisted of top officials within the Venezuelan armed forces, declared its opposition to the president, demanded him to resign and installed Pedro Carmona — a civilian businessman — after the clique detained Chavez.

What had been seen in Venezuela was a mixture between mass and electoral politics. Thousands of people were on the street demanding Chavez to resign.

It therefore created a room for the military group to maneuver and overthrew the democratically elected president. In the very next day, thousands of Chavez supporters took on to the street triggered a political turmoil that finally forced Pedro Carmona to resign.

The Venezuelans, who may initially tolerate the attempted coup, were disappointed by Carmona’s decisions to dissolve the National Assembly and also the Supreme Court. These decisions, in the view of the Venezuelan people, obviously threatened the country’s democracy. Moreover, it would create precedent of coup and counter-coup, which in fact had been substantially reduced not only in Venezuela, but also in most of the Latin American countries for almost a decade.

It is worth noting that Venezuela has developed a modern electoral political system since the death of the former leader Juan Vincente Gomez, who ruled the country with iron hands, in 1935. Since then, as observed by Kornblith and Levine in their work Venezuela: The Life and Times of The Party System (1995), political parties has always been at the center stage of the Venezuelan politics.

Although surely there were periods of ups and down, the Venezuelan democracy continuously undergoes reform, including the one to make political parties “more participatory and subject to democratic control”. The reform program carried out during 1980s has created more channels for citizen participation. As a result, democracy in Venezuela has become what Juan Linz and Alfred Stepan termed as “the only game in town”. The Venezuelan people value democracy as procedural norms, as well as a source of legitimacy for anyone or any group seeking for power. In short, in the eyes of most Venezuelans, the only legitimate way to assume power is through democratic election.

Interestingly, Chavez’s journey to the presidency is a pertinent example of the above statement. As a lieutenant colonel of the armed forces, Chavez staged a coup back in 1992, He failed, but was fortunate enough that president Rafael Caldera at that time granted an amnesty for him in 1994. Then, in the 1998 general election, Chavez secured the majority of the votes, which finally elevated him to the presidency.

It is crystal clear that for democracy to survive there must exist at least two conditions. First, democratic norms and procedures must be acknowledged both by leaders and people. Therefore, building a healthy party system must be regarded as a high priority. The healthy party system is needed for ensuring that political change will only occur in a democratic way. Second, the party system must be able to channel, defend and articulate the interest of the people, not the interest of the small circle of parties’ elites.

There is another important lesson. The existing discussion on democratization has mostly focused on domestic challenges that can support or impede the successful efforts of the entire democratization process. However, the international dimension also needs to be taken into account, as it appeared in the case of Venezuela.

The Organization of American States (OAS) was quick to condemn the political move of Pedro Carmona and the military. It was widely regarded in the region as a coup. The statement was not surprising, since its members had agreed multilaterally at their annual meeting in 1991 “to adopt any measures deemed appropriate to restore democracy if one of their members were to be overthrown by non-constitutional means”. The organization just recently renewed this important agreement.

In its new Inter-American Democratic Charter signed in September 2001, the members reinforce the previous agreement that the organization will never legitimize an unconstitutional interruption of the democratic order or an unconstitutional alteration of the constitutional regime occurred in any one of its member countries. The new charter stipulates several measures that can be taken by the Organization in dealing with such a case, including the postponement of the membership of the particular country.

Such a strong commitment certainly comes from a notion that democracy is the rights of the people of the American continent.

The same is apparently true for people in Indonesia and in Southeast Asia. Indonesia is at the point of no return to continue the democratization process. How the OAS handled the attempted coup in Venezuela presents another lesson that one possible way to guard our own democratization process is by promoting an environment conducive for the consolidation of democracy under the framework of regional organization,

Indonesia might seek support if there is any unconstitutional attempt to alter our newly established democratic system.

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