Christopher Hitchens observed a few weeks ago that el Presidente Chávez, whom he had visited in 2008 along with Chávez’s close friend Sean Penn and whose antics he still follows, is barking mad. As Hitchens put it:
Chávez … is very close to the climactic moment when he will announce that he is a poached egg and that he requires a very large piece of buttered toast so that he can lie down and take a soothing nap.
Unfortunately, a nap is not what Chávez has in mind:
In a televised broadcast from the Miraflores presidential palace, Chavez spoke out against opposition leaders: “They will never enter here again, the immoral ones, the mobsters, the stateless ones, the traitors. I am going to say this until the last day of my life.”
In Venezuela, where Chávez is by no means alone in his dementia and lunacy does not augur defeat, insanity is more useful as an excuse for whatever happens than as valid predictor of the future. Even trying to figure out what happened can induce insanity.
Turnout was reasonably high, officially at 66.45% of Venezuela’s approximately 17,000,000 registered voters. “Small incidents” at a few polling places were “controlled,” according to the National Electoral Council, which stated: “This shows responsiveness not only of the CNE, but also of our Bolivarian Armed Forces and Plan República.” According to the attorney general: “The election was totally normal and was remarkably among the most successful ones in the Venezuelan history.” However, shortly after the close of the polls, opposition civil association Súmate said it received 911 complaints: 760 from voters, 114 from election witnesses, and 56 from poll workers. There were also various complaints of significant irregularities reported here, here, here, here, and elsewhere.
After a far longer delay in reporting than anticipated, the official preliminary results were reported at 3:30 a.m. EDT Monday. The president of the opposition alliance had stated earlier:
After all this time telling us that we have the most modern, most automated, most perfect election system in the world, and after they promised they would publish the results two hours following closure of polling sites, more than six hours have passed after the polls closed and results have not been announced.
We are waiting, because we do respect the law (which prevents publication of election results before the first official bulletin.) We know what happened, we already know what happened.
It seems likely that the official announcement of results had to be delayed until approved by el Presidente Chávez and that he was unhappy with them.
According to the official preliminary results, the Chavista party (PSUV) “won” at least 96 of 165 seats (58.2%) in the National Assembly. The PSUV previously had 139 seats (84.2%), with the rest held by various post-2005 breakaway leftist parties, including PPT and PODEMOS with six seats each. Chávez does not much like the breakaway parties, the “traitors, defenders of the empire and bourgeoisie.” The PSUV had a net loss of 43 seats.
The recently but only grudgingly united opposition parties (Unidos para Venezuela, with the unfortunate acronym MUD) got at least 61 seats (37%). Following the last election in 2005, which they boycotted, the opposition parties had no seats, so while the net gain of 61 seats is perhaps a bit less significant than might otherwise appear, it is not all that much less significant in view of the gross disparity between popular votes and seats obtained. However, as explained below, it should make a big difference.
The electorate had been thought more or less evenly distributed. According to the official preliminary results, the PSUV got 5,222,364 votes and the MUD got 5,054,114, a difference of 168,250 votes (1.64%). According to MUD, its candidates got 52% of the popular vote.
[Changes] to the electoral system rammed through by the government meant that a narrow popular vote lead is enough to give the PSUV a landslide victory. The changes abolish proportional representation, even though it is written into the 1999 constitution. And poorer, rural states where Mr. Chávez has more support will be significantly over-represented in the new assembly.
The districts more heavily supportive of Chávez also have more seats, for that reason.