Yesterday in Venezuela, supporters of President Hugo Chávez failed to muster a popular majority for an ambitious package of referenda that would have, among other things, changed the country’s constitution to eliminate presidential term limits, allowing Chávez, whose current term expires in 2012, to continue running for re-election indefinitely. Far from concealing his ambitions to be president for life, Chávez used them as a central selling point for his initiatives, which went down yesterday by a vote of 51 to 49 percent.
For Chávez, who, owing to a new constitution that he pushed through early in his presidency and a recall vote orchestrated by his political opponents in 2003, has been elected president by a resounding margin four separate times, yesterday’s vote represents a rare electoral defeat. But once the initial sting fades away, Chávez may realize that, in several important respects, this may be the best thing that could have happened to him. Unlike in other recent Venezuelan elections, no international observers were on hand to verify the legitimacy of the results, leading many to believe that the government would raise cries of fraud in the event of a narrow defeat. But when that narrow defeat came late last night, Chávez conceded immediately, congratulating his opponents and saying of his reforms, “For now, we could not do it.”
Chávez’s government has its problems, but if he were really the crypto-authoritarian thug that his critics—a group that includes the vast majority of the mainstream American punditocracy—claim him to be, it’s unlikely he would have taken the loss so well. By accepting a narrow electoral defeat, Chávez stands to gain far more political legitimacy than he would have from a narrow victory. One of the basic hallmarks of a functional electoral system is that it produces results that all parties believe to be legitimate. In this respect, yesterday’s vote can be seen as a sign of the health of the democracy over which Chávez has presided for the past nine years.
For residents of a country like the U.S., with a democratic tradition that dates back more than two centuries, it’s easy to sneer at the notion that something so fundamental as the willingness to accept the outcome of a close vote should be counted as an accomplishment, but in a country lacking such a tradition, and in a region with a history of authoritarian politics, such fundamentals can’t be taken for granted. It’s also worth noting that our own democracy failed a similar test in 2000, yielding an electoral outcome that millions of Americans consider to have been illegitimate.