Global Challenges
Issue no. 2 | September 2017
Democracy at Risk
Global Challenges
Issue no. 2 | September 2017
Democracy at Risk | Article 6

Post-Truth Populism in Venezuela

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Venezuela’s Chavist regime seems to be a good example of an illiberal democracy. But is it?

As democracies deconsolidate, the prospect of democratic breakdown becomes increasingly likely.Roberto Foa and Yasha Mounk, 2016Illiberal democracy is democracy minus constitutional liberalism. According to Fareed Zakaria, without liberalism’s checks and balances democracy lends itself to the kind of “people-making” based on ethnic, class, racial or religious majorities, a feature that is intrinsic to the authoritarian populisms or “illiberal democracies” proliferating everywhere. Characterised by plebiscitary rule and an expansion of the executive that renders all state branches into adjuncts of the ruler, Venezuela’s Chavist regime seems to be a good example of an illiberal democracy. I would, nonetheless, raise the following questions: Does Chavism have any unique features? And, if so, which and why? Following the standard argument on “illiberal democracy” the answer would be negative as Chavism would simply offer yet another cautionary tale about democracy without liberalism. Recent developments in Venezuela, however, would suggest otherwise. In my view Chavism’s significance and dynamism have less to do with democracy, understood as majority rule, than with factors that such an understanding occludes. Despite having lost its electoral edge Chavism has recently become even more authoritarian and repressive but without drawing (other than fraudulently) on a majority that it no longer possesses.

The fragmentation of the political body

The collapse of representative democracy and of the nation’s representative institutions instigated by a neoliberal structural adjustment programme in the 1980s explains Venezuelan Chavism better than the mere question of democracy. Though it initially came to power following a democratic implosion, the trajectory of Chavism since is only intelligible as part of the breakdown of political representation that is an endemic, even postliberal, condition currently affecting not just Venezuela but the world.


This breakdown has two critical effects: firstly, it reveals a crowd sociality hitherto enclosed within social and political institutions and, with it, the emergence of bodily affect as a crucial political and social crucible. Secondly, in such a situation, there is a growing inability of any representative instance to occupy the place of the universal, and, from there, represent the whole of society to the state. Under these conditions infectious affective contagion spreads. This amounts to a preeminence of the horizontal over the vertical as the axis along which forms of personal and social experience and relations are formed, unformed and transformed.

Confronted with such a slippery terrain brought about by globalisation and traversed by myriad images and desires circulated by the media, the Venezuelan state is unable to totalise society, or represent it as a whole society accountable to itself.


Like sovereignty or democracy, populism too mutates amidst such an unstoppable “retreat of the political” as the instance capable of totalising “society”. Traversed by myriad images and desires circulated by the media, the Venezuelan state is unable to totalise society, or represent it as a whole society accountable to itself. Populism has been characterised as the “royal road” to the political, the means whereby through appeals to a homogeneous “people” a political order torn by intractable antagonisms is made whole again (Ernesto Laclau). When the very possibility of setting up a totality is fraught, populist interpellations acquire new ideological functions. If in classical populism appeals to the “people” functioned as the political means to vertically restore a fantasised lost unity, sustaining such fantasy is increasingly untenable both ideologically and institutionally now that the political is horizontally beset by an increasingly divided, differentiating society.

Under these no longer totalising circumstances, appeals to the “people” function according to an unabashedly “tribal” logic aimed at erecting a war machine centred on affect and the body. It operates on an ever more fragmented social terrain, which it does not seek to totalise but to control and dominate.Appeals to the “people” function according to an unabashedly “tribal” logic aimed at erecting a war machine centred on affect and the body.  The endless strife and ungovernability of this fragmented terrain keeps the populist machine expanding at the cost, however, of rendering sociality ever more unpredictable and chaotic. In what in the current climate of post-truth politics amounts to a Humpty Dumpty effect in the sense that a word “means just what I choose it to mean”, the word “people” can simply refer to “my people”, however the ruler chooses to define them. “My people” are then those always ready to bodily crush the enemy rather than any numerical majority that supports a government or a policy.

dominance without hegemony

The result is “dominance without hegemony” (Ranajit Guha). Having lost its majority, Chavism still insists on maintaining power. To achieve this, the massively corrupt regime has developed a whole new arsenal of control mechanisms ranging from the wholesale distribution of weapons to civilians, the so-called colectivos, to placing the army, which is now subjected to minute forms of intelligence monitored by Cuban agents, in control of the nation’s food distribution and vast mineral wealth.

Meanwhile invocations of “democracy” and “the people” continue but mean what the regime wants them to mean, irrespective of any numerical majorities. The recent top-down decision to set up a “Constituent Assembly” capable of bypassing the opposition-controlled parliament is the latest in the regime’s Humpty Dumpty politics. Yet this is not a case of an “illiberal democracy” if by that one means a well-consolidated, semitotalitarian regime. A more likely scenario, I fear, is: an intensification of the prevailing civic strife, corruption, violence, narcotrafficking and chaos. While the opposition controls ever more ineffective sites of democratic expression, the regime “democratically” holds the firepower.

From the very beginning Chavism in all its exorbitance foreshadowed tendencies at work everywhere in times of the “retreat of the political”. Trump’s populist, Humpty Dumpty–like assault on American liberalism bears witness to similar tendencies. In order to defend democracy and liberalism, we will need to rethink them in the face of this withdrawal of the political.

By Rafael Sánchez
Senior Lecturer
Department of Anthropology and Sociology
The Graduate Institute, Geneva

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Header image caption: Volunteer rescuers step aside to take cover as riot police motorcyclists charge on opposition activists protesting against the newly inaugurated Constituent Assembly in Caracas, Venezuela. 4 August 2017.

Venezuelans living in poverty (% of the population), 2000–2015

Source: The Economist

Definitions of Democracy

Basic definition

Democracy can be defined as, literally, the rule by the people. The term is derived from the Greek dēmokratiā, coined from dēmos (“people”) and kratos (“rule”) in the 5th century BCE. At heart, democracy is based on three principles: popular sovereignty, political participation and political contestation. Democracies may take on different constitutional forms (constitutional monarchy, republic) and modes of territorial organisation (unitary, federal).

Thin vs. thick description of democracy

The ballot box (free, fair and regular elections) defines democracy at its most basic. This minimalist or “thin” conception of democracy can be opposed to a more substantial or “thick” definition holding that in addition to elections, democracy needs to satisfy a series of further constitutional, liberal and/or social criteria.

Direct democracy

In a direct democracy the people govern sovereignly by congregating in popular assemblies and taking decisions by popular vote (usually by show of hands, as in the Swiss cantons of Appenzell Innerrhoden and Glarus). There is no political representation. For thousands of years direct democracy remained the principal model of democracy as exerted in city-states or other small-scale polities.

Example: ancient Athens.

Representative democracy

A representative or electoral democracy is a type of democracy where the people govern indirectly through elected representatives. It requires a set of political institutions different from those of direct democracy such as parliaments and regular elections. Representative democracy became prevalent in the 19th century with the emergence of large nation-states.

Liberal democracy

Liberal democracy is a subgenre of representative democracy defined not only by free and fair elections, but also by the rule of law, the separation of powers and the protection of basic civil liberties (freedom of speech, assembly and religion). Liberal democracies limit the exercise of executive power and majority rule through constitutions ensuring independent courts, the protection of minorities, and basic human rights.

Semidirect democracy

Semidirect democracy is a mixed form of democracy where elected representatives govern and legislate but the citizens remain sovereign through referenda, initiatives and recalls. Even though today only Switzerland is a semi-direct democracy in the formal sense, many democracies have institutionalised elements of expression of popular will such as referenda.

Parliamentary democracy

Parliamentary democracy is a type of representative democracy where the executive branch of government depends on the support of the parliament, often expressed through a vote of confidence. The party that wins the largest number of congressional seats selects the prime minister, who controls the legislative process. The executive is divided into a head of government and a ceremonial head of state.

Examples: Australia, Germany, India, Spain.

Presidential democracy

Presidential democracy is a type of representative democracy where the executive branch is elected separately from the legislative branch. The parliament controls the budget, legislates, approves appointments to cabinet positions and ratifies foreign treaties. The president appoints cabinet members, commands the army and serves as the head of state and the head of government.

Examples: Argentina, Indonesia, United States, Venezuela.

Semi-presidential democracy

Semi-presidential democracy is a type of representative democracy where a president exists alongside a prime minister and a cabinet. It differs from the parliamentary system in that it has a popularly elected head of state, who is more than a purely ceremonial figurehead, and from the presidential system in that the cabinet, although named by the president, is responsible to the legislature, who can move a motion of no confidence.

Examples: France, Russia, Tunisia.

Participatory democracy

Participatory democracy refers to a regime where citizens participate actively in public decision-making. Instruments to broaden citizen participation include e-democracy and e-voting.

Deliberative democracy

In a deliberative democracy authentic deliberation, not mere voting, is the primary source of a law’s legitimacy. Jürgen Habermas has made a fundamental contribution to deliberative democracy through his work on communicative rationality and the public sphere.

Voting systems: proportional, plurality and majority

In a proportional system parties obtain seats proportionally to the votes they win. In a plurality system, candidates who win most votes in an electoral district are elected. In a majority system, candidates who win more votes than all others combined in an electoral district are elected. Proportional representation usually leads to a multiparty system whereas plurality and majority election favour bipartisanism.

United States






This table shows the evolution of democracy in the USRussiaUgandaHungaryTurkeyVenezuela over 10 years. Arrows indicate the improvement (↗) or deterioration (↘) of a given indicator between 2006 and 2016. One arrow per 0.4 variance on a scale of 10.

Aspects of democracy Trend
Legislative constraints on the executive ↘↘
Judicial constraints on the executive = ↘↘
Government censorship (internet) ↘↘ = ↘↘↘↘ ↘↘
Government censorship (media) ↘↘ = ↘↘ ↘↘↘↘↘ ↘↘
Freedom of association
Freedom house rule of law =
Freedom of academic and cultural expression ↘↘ ↘↘ ↘↘↘↘↘↘ ↘↘
Source: V-Dem Website provides 350 indicators and indices on democracy.
Caricature de @Chappatte - www.chappatte.com Caricature de Beatriz Tirado

Source: Democracy Index (Economist Intelligence Unit, EIU)

What Is Illiberal Democracy?


In his 1997 contribution to Foreign Affairs, “The Rise of Illiberal Democracy”, Fareed Zakaria defines illiberal democracies as “democratically elected regimes, often ones that have been reelected or reaffirmed through referenda, [but] are routinely ignoring constitutional limits on their power and depriving their citizens of basic rights and freedoms”.

Fareed Zakaria

Fareed Zakaria is an Indian American journalist and author with a BA from Yale College and a PhD in Government from Harvard University. He worked as Adjunct Professor at Columbia University and as managing editor of Foreign Affairs from 1992 to 2000 (a post he was appointed to at only 28 years old). Zakaria has also been a columnist and editor for Newsweek, Time Magazine and The Atlantic. Currently he hosts Fareed Zakaria GPS – CNN’s flagship international affairs programme – and writes columns for The Washington Post. Foreign Policy named Zakaria one of its top 100 global thinkers. He is the author of five books, including The Future of Freedom (2003), The Post-American World (2008) and In Defense of a Liberal Education (2016).

15 characteristics
  • Consolidation of power in the executive
  • Charismatic leader
  • Erosion of the independence of the judiciary
  • Weakening status of the parliament
  • Recourse to direct democracy (plebiscites/referenda)
  • Populist rhetoric/propaganda
  • Discrimination of minorities
  • Monitoring and moulding of civil society
  • Media and internet censorship
  • Curbs on academia and educational curricula
  • Targeted repression of opponents
  • Restrictions on freedom of speech and assembly
  • Disregard for rule of law and human rights
  • Misuse of state resources (cronyism)
  • Emasculation of the electoral process
  • Forging of external enemies
Academic criticism

Illiberal democracy as a concept has been criticised for its diffuse meaning and close proximity to related, almost synonymous terms, such as: limited democracy, flawed democracy, hybrid regimes, dysfunctional democracy, deconsolidating democracy, defective democracy and electoral authoritarianism. According to Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way, the concept does not distinguish sharply enough democracies which have, in fact, never been truly democratic but claim to be so, from regimes that actually have successfully become or transitioned toward genuine democracy but are backsliding toward autocracy. Others, such as Jørgen Møller, have argued that electoral democracy is, if measured adequately, a better measure than illiberal democracy since truly competitive elections only take place in liberal democracies. Finally, it has also been contended that illiberal democracy is an unfortunate and potentially noxious misnomer since it offers the opportunity to populists and autocrats to promote illiberalism while preserving the veil of democracy.

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