Last weekend's election for 165 representatives in Venezuela's national assembly is significant but unlikely to bring about major change, despite the opposition having done better than expected. On the latest count the pro-government United Socialist party has 94 seats, with 60 for the opposition Democratic Unity, five for other parties and the rest undecided. The opposition claims it won a majority of the popular vote, but apparently it was very close between the two main parties.
As expected, most of the international press and its sources hailed the results as a "major blow" to Hugo Chávez, paving the way for his possible removal in the presidential election in 2012. But this is exaggerated.
The vote was widely seen as a referendum on Chávez, and it would be an anomaly in electoral politics if the government did not lose support after a recession last year that continued into the first quarter of this year. Chávez's popularity has always reflected the economy, reaching a low during the recession of 2002-03 – regardless of the fact that it was caused by an opposition oil strike. His approval rating has fallen from 60% in early 2009 to 46% last month.
For comparison President Obama's approval rating has fallen from 68% last April to 45% this month, and his party is expected to take big losses in the congressional elections. This is despite him having clearly inherited economic problems from his predecessor.
It is not clear why anyone would expect Venezuela to be exempt from the workings of electoral politics. The opposition has most of the wealth of the country – and most of its media. They have no problem getting their message out. Obama also faces a strong rightwing media, with Fox News now one of the most popular sources for coverage of the autumn elections, but there is much less of an opposition media in the US.
Much has been made of the opposition getting more than a third of the national assembly, thus being able to block legislation that would "deepen the revolution". Again, the importance of this is greatly exaggerated.
In reality it is unlikely to make much difference. The pace at which it adopts reforms has been limited more by administrative capacity than by politics. The Financial Times recently added up the value of industries nationalised by the Chávez government. Outside oil, it came to less than 8% of GDP over the last five years. Venezuela still has a long way to go before the state has as much a role in the economy as it does in, for instance, France.
On the positive side, the most interesting result of this election is that the opposition participated, has accepted the results, and now has a bloc of representatives that can participate in a parliamentary democracy.
This could be an advance for Venezuelan democracy, which has been undermined by an anti-democratic opposition for more than a decade. As opposition leader Teodoro Petkoff has noted, the opposition pursued a strategy of "military takeover" for the first four years, which included a military coup and a devastating oil strike that crippled the economy. In 2004 the opposition tried to remove Chávez through a referendum; they failed, and then promptly refused to recognise the result – despite its certification by international observers such as the Carter Center and the Organisation of American States.
They then boycotted the last election in 2005, hoping to portray the government as a "dictatorship" and leaving them without representation. This newly elected bloc could potentially draw the opposition into real political participation. If that happens, it would be a significant advance for a country that has been too polarised for too long.