On December 8, Venezuela’s National Electoral Council (CNE) confirmed that the opposition Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) alliance’s had won a supermajority of 112 seats in Venezuela’s National Assembly. The victory marked an amazing change of political fortune both for the often fractious opposition and, on the other side, the ruling socialist government. In a country in which the rules—including election laws and district size—are often malleable, the opposition’s supermajority is in part a creation of the government.
The MUD earned about 56 percent of the national vote but gained 67 percent of legislative seats. And if not for the intentional malapportionment engineered by the government and a party list tier that has a moderating effect on gains, things could have been far worse for chavismo.
How did the opposition coalition manage to earn more seats than votes, and how did the governing United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) allow it to happen?
In large part, it stems from a 2009 reform that turned the Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) electoral system into a disproportionate and unconstitutional Mixed Member Majoritarian (MMM) system. Both of these systems use multiple tiers—allocating some seats nominally through plurality voting for individuals and others proportionally through list voting for parties. But where the MMP system uses the proportional-list tier to compensate for disproportionalities in the nominal one, MMM is unlinked, producing a bonus for the largest party. The reform also reduced the weight of the party list from 40 percent to 30 percent of total legislative seats while increasing the weight of the disproportionate plurality vote. Last, the new system maintained a series of multi-member districts at the nominal tier, resulting in a block voting that also favors the largest party.
In the first election under the new system, the reforms favored the government—as intended. In 2010, the governing PSUV earned 58 percent of the seats of the unicameral national legislature with only 48 percent of the popular vote in 2010. In 2015, amidst an economic crisis and voter dissatisfaction with shortages and triple digit inflation, those changes favored the opposition allowing it this time to gain a disproportionate share of the assembly.
From MPP to las morochas to MMM
For many years, the Venezuelan system sought a direct proportional relationship between votes cast and seats earned. In 1993, the country adopted an MMP system in which voters would cast two votes: one for individuals elected via first-past-the-post rules, and the second for a national party list, with seats allocated proportionally to correct any distortions created at the first-past-the-post level.
Later, Article 63 of Hugo Chávez’s 1999 political constitution enshrined proportional representation as a political right, stating that, “the law shall guarantee the principle of personalization of suffrage and proportional representation.”
However, clever politicians were eventually able to game the system and undermine this by using two party lists, a trick known as las morochas (Venezuelan Spanish for “twins”). In 2000, opposition governor of Yaracuy state, Eduardo Lapi, ran two different parties for office in an alliance. One of the allied parties presented its candidates only on the party list, while the other party ran candidates only on the first past-the-post level. This allowed the alliance to win four of the five party list seats with 40 percent of the vote, and six of the seven nominal list seats with 53 percent of the vote. Based on this success, the governing chavista party adopted the morochas strategy in the 2005 legislative elections (although its victory was already assured by the opposition’s abstention).
In 2009, the CNE and National Assembly passed the Organic Law of Electoral Processes (LOPE), formalizing the morochas strategy by completely separating the district vote and the party list votes and creating a “parallel” MMM system. What this meant was that instead of the party list serving as a way to guarantee greater proportionately between vote shares and seat distribution, it reinforced the strength of the largest party by favoring overrepresentation at the nominal tier as well as a full proportional share at the list tier. In doing so, the new law violated the constitution’s guarantee of proportionality.
The LOPE reform also reduced the share of party list seats in the assembly from 40 percent to 30 percent, further reducing the possibility of proportional representation. The end result was to give greater weight to the disproportional first-past-the-post nominal elections. In addition, the reform gerrymandered some districts, concentrating heavy opposition support in few districts with high margins, and creating more PSUV-leaning districts with lower margins.
Last, the law maintained a number of multi-member nominal list districts whose candidates are elected via “plurality-at-large” voting, or block voting. In these places, voters cast a number of votes for individual candidates equal to the number of seats, with multiple winners being elected via plurality. This system tends to disproportionately favor the most popular party, since voters are usually unwilling to split tickets by voting for candidates from multiple parties.
Taken together, the LOPE reforms were intentionally designed to benefit the largest party by reducing the contribution of the proportional tier, keeping multi-member plurality districts, and eliminating the possibility that the list tier could compensate for disproportionality at the nominal level. But that only worked as long as the PSUV was the most popular party.
Unfortunately for party leaders, in 2015 this was no longer the case.
So what was, after the to-ing and fro-ing of the PSUV-manipulated electoral system, the electoral board on which parties competed on December 6?
At the list level, voters elected 51 deputies in 24 federal entities (23 states and the capital district). An additional 113 candidates were elected via first-past-the-post voting in 87 smaller districts. The majority of these had only had one seat, but there were 16 two-member districts, and five had three members up for grabs. Voters also elected three indigenous representatives in three larger, overlapping regional districts. That brings the total number of elected legislators to the National Assembly to 167.
Confusing? Yes, and arguably the PSUV and the government wanted it that way (Venezuelan Twitter was still abuzz with misinformation more than 24 hours after the election, with confused citizenry erroneously arguing that the current President of the Assembly, Diosdado Cabello, had lost his legislative seat.)
But this time how did the MUD benefit? Certainly not at the list level. At this tier, two deputies are elected through closed lists, but a list must receive twice the number of votes received by the second-most-voted list to win both seats. If this does not occur, the first and second highest voted lists each win one seat. (In another complication, in the three most populous states of Miranda, Zulia, and Carabobo, there are three seats that are distributed through a proportional representation system called D’Hondt that tends to reduce fragmentation, though not to the extent in the system described.) In the two-member districts, then, the system favors the second-highest vote winner in any district, actually helping the PSUV!
This is borne out by the numbers. The MUD outgained the PSUV 56 percent to 41 percent at this party list level and earned a highly proportional 55 percent of the seats (28 of the 51). The two parties split every district except the border state of Táchira, where the MUD more than doubled the PSUV’s vote share (66 percent to 29 percent) and won both seats. In other words, this level basically helped the two major parties, both the PSUV and MUD, at the expense of smaller parties.
But it was in the nominal, first-past-the-post elections that the opposition rode its wave of national support to overtake the PSUV. (For a full depiction of the data please visit my website.) There it out-gained the government party 81 seats to 32, despite once again earning only 56 percent of the vote. The PSUV still benefitted from malapportionment—it earned more than a dozen seats in the sparsely populated plains area of the country, called the llano—but was defeated nearly everywhere else. The malapportionment of seats in the llano was not enough to make up for the MUD’s victories elsewhere.
In the state of Aragua, the MUD earned 54 percent of the vote to 43 percent for the PSUV, yet the MUD earned eight seats to the PSUV’s one, winning all four nominal tier districts—three of which were multi-member. The MUD won by a wide margin in district 1 (60 percent-37 percent), a narrow margin in districts 2 and 4 (51 percent-47 percent and 52 percent-47 percent), and just barely squeaked out a victory in district 3, with 48.52 percent (69,140 votes) to 48.48 percent (69,058 votes). Under the old system, the PSUV would have earned both of the compensatory seats that were intended to correct the disproportionate allocation in the first-past-the-post, nominal competition.
Similar things occurred elsewhere, as the MUD rode the upsurge of popular discontent to gain eight of nine seats in the Capital District with 57 percent of the vote, seven of eight in Anzoátegui with 59 percent voter support, seven of eight in Bolívar with 60 percent of the ballots, eight of ten in Carabobo with 59 percent of voter support, and six of seven in Táchira with 66 percent of the ballots cast in its favor, and an incredible 13 of 15 in Zulia with a mere 60 percent of voter support.
The old MMP system would have helped the PSUV in all districts by correcting these disproportionalities. Further, with a more equal balance between tiers—allocating 50 percent of the seats via proportional representation instead of just 30 percent—the MUD would have enjoyed fewer seats. And had the government promoted only single-member districts in the first-past-the-post-elections, some of the smaller districts would likely have held PSUV pluralities. Instead the larger 2- and 3-member districts allowed the MUD to capture all the seats. In other words, the majoritarian system that allowed the PSUV to control the assembly in 2010 produced a similar outcome for the MUD in 2015.
Change to come?
In sum, the disproportionately of this system that was roundly criticized by supporters of the MUD in 2010 benefitted it tremendously in 2015, and afforded the coalition the advantages that gave it two-thirds of the legislature.
Nevertheless, despite now having a stake in the clearly skewed electoral system, the opposition would be wise to try to reform the current system. To begin, greater proportionality would increase voter representation—always a desirable goal, especially for a democratic coalition.
The parties themselves would also benefit. The MUD needed a perfect storm of factors to move its national vote share from 47 percent in 2010 to 56 percent in 2015, and arguably part of its electoral support was a repudiation of the governing party rather than an endorsement of its own platform. A decrease in its support on December 6—or worse, a breakdown of the heterogeneous coalition into its constituent parties—could result in a catastrophic performance in the next elections.
There are at least three practical steps for reform: 1) bring back MMP and the list tier’s compensatory function of topping off disproportionalities in the nominal-level voting; 2) weight the representation of the list and nominal tiers equally with a 50 percent to 50 percent breakdown; and 3) remove the loophole that would allow las morochas under MMP. To be sure, there are more urgent issues to legislate in Venezuela right now, but electoral reform should be on the agenda if politicians want to avoid an equally disproportionate outcome in 2020 and ensure a democratic and representative legislative system that avoids locking any one governing party into power.
John Polga-Hecimovich is a Visiting Assistant Professor at the College of William & Mary, and will join the Political Science faculty at the U.S. Naval Academy as an Assistant Professor in fall 2015. He research focuses on bureaucratic politics, legislative-executive relations, and institutions in Latin America. You can follow him on Twitter at: @jpolga.