Whether change comes swiftly or slowly, a deafness to cries for change can discredit not just politicians or political parties but whole systems of government.
This has already happened in Venezuela. It’s in the process of happening in Brazil. Chile, however slowly, is showing a better way.
Venezuela is currently in the process of rewriting its constitution for the second time in as many decades.
On the first occasion, in 1999, socialist leader Hugo Chávez enshrined minority rights in the constitution, introduced recall elections and gave citizens’ assemblies the power to override the decisions of elected officials.
This was a response to popular outcry at what was seen as neoliberal-induced corruption, economic mismanagement and political unaccountability. The idea was to wrest power from elites and give it to “the people”.
The same reason is now given by Chávez’ handpicked successor, Nicolás Maduro, for rewriting the law again.
It would not appear that reversing liberal economic policies and disenfranchising pro-Western elites has left Venezuela better off. The last few years have seen a shocking economic and societal decline, culminating in riots that have so far killed at least 120 people.
As a result, Chávez’ party lost its majority in 2015 for the first time in sixteen years, but his successors continue to dominate the executive, judiciary and military. The opposition-controlled parliament has been sidelined by Maduro’s Constituent Assembly, a presidential recall referendum has been squashed and gubernatorial elections have been postponed. Food and medicine are so scarce as to foment widespread malnutrition and outbreaks of previously forgotten diseases.
Rewriting the constitution is really a play for time and a grab for power, belying the lofty promises of the Bolivarian Revolution. Opinion polls suggest that up to 85 percent of Venezuelans reject the effort. Participatory democracy — once hailed as a fundamental aspect of the progressive Chavista project — has been transparently instrumentalized by an almost wholly discredited president to bypass the opposition and go after its leaders.
The crisis has not reached such epic proportions in Brazil, but the tone-deafness of its political class is no less striking.
A sweeping anti-corruption investigation known as Operation Car Wash has so far uncovered almost $2 billion in funds that were diverted to politicians and their allies from contractors bidding for work with the state-owned oil and gas company, Petrobras. One president, Dilma Roussef, has been impeached for her role in the scandal. Another, Michel Temer, may yet follow.
Yet Congress is trying to return to business as usual. It recently voted not to approve corruption charges against the president, even though 81 percent of voters said they should. Politicians also rewrote an anti-corruption law to shield themselves from prosecution.
190 out of 513 deputies are currently under investigation, whether for electoral fraud, money laundering or even murder.
Temer’s government is emblematic of the gulf that separates Brazilians from their leaders: his all-male, all-white cabinet lost six ministers to scandal in its first year with a further eight under investigation.
One poll has found 79 percent of voters preferring to see non-politicians stand in the upcoming congressional and presidential elections. An unhealthy nostalgia for military rule is growing in some quarters, stoked by the far-right presidential hopeful, Jair Bolsonaro. Only a third of Brazilians still agree with the statement that “democracy is preferable to any other form of government.”
Unlike in Venezuela, where constitutions change depending on who is in power, Chile is still beholden to a document that was written almost forty years ago under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.
Unlike in Brazil, where politicians cling to power no matter what, Chile’s have reformed the Pinochet-era binomial voting system, which guaranteed majorities for the biggest party and made it almost impossible for small parties to win seats.
Michelle Bachelet was elected president for a second time in 2013 on a promise to dismantle the vestiges of military rule. The constitutional rewrite she launched could hardly be more different from Venezuela’s.
The process started in 2015 with nationwide dialogues, the results of which are due to be presented to Congress in October. The plan is to put the final draft to a referendum, but it is accepted this cannot be achieved during Bachelet’s presidency.
Her declining popularity has had little impact on Chileans’ support for constitutional reforms or democracy generally, showing the difference good will from politicians and buy-in from citizens can make.