A Quick Comparative Assessment of Georgia and Venezuela

Two countries with competitive authoritarian regimes held elections this past week, with very different results. In Georgia, President Mikheil Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM) lost its parliamentary majority for the first time since it took power in the Rose Revolution nearly a decade ago. In Venezuela, however, President Hugo Chávez won a fourth term by his slimmest margin yet, defeating challenger Henrique Capriles by “only” a 9-percent margin.

As a forecaster, I went 1 for 2 in predicting the outcome of these elections. Because they are—or, in the case of Georgia, were—electoral authoritarian regimes, I expected the ruling parties to win in both cases. There seemed to be a lot of uncertainty about the outcome in both, but as I said on Twitter, the illusion of uncertainty is a design feature of this type of regime. Regarding Venezuela, I gave Chavez 4:1 odds of beating Capriles. I recognized that the election machinery introduced some uncertainty into the process, but I believed Chavez had tilted the playing field steeply enough in his own favor to return himself to office, regardless of Capriles’ appeal. I didn’t make a specific prediction about Georgia, but if I had, it would’ve been about the same, and for the same reasons. The challenging Georgian Dream coalition clearly had some momentum heading into the election, but I thought Georgia’s machine politics and byzantine electoral system would allow Saakashvili’s UNM to retain a parliamentary majority anyway.

So, how did two apparently similar cases produce two different outcomes? On the fly, I can think of three explanations, all of which could be true at the same time.

First, it’s quite possible that I read the two cases wrong in advance of the election. Maybe Georgia really was less authoritarian than I thought. Electoral authoritarian regimes are inherently ambiguous, and this ambiguity makes it especially hard to observe small changes, or to be confident that the small changes we do see will be meaningful ones. For cases in this boundary area, however, small differences can have a big impact on the results.

Second, Georgia had a national scandal erupt over prison abuse in the campaign’s final weeks, and it’s possible that this “October surprise” was severe enough to knock the system off its old equilibrium. Video clips showing male prisoners being tortured and sexually assaulted by guards sparked mass demonstrations in cities across the country, and many Georgians seemed to see the abuse as metaphor for deeper systemic problems that the Rose Revolution had failed to correct.

Third, I think the two countries’ different positions in the international system played a role. Hugo Chavez has explicitly positioned his country as a counterweight to “Western hegemony,” and that adversarial posture has encouraged him to thumb his nose at critics and election observers from countries and organizations he sees as hostile to his “Bolivarian revolution.” Mikheil Saakashvili, by contrast, has hugged the United States and Europe, aggressively—almost desperately—pursuing entree into NATO and the European Union as a way to catalyze Georgia’s “modernization” and to protect it from the angry Russian bear next door.

This Westernization strategy led Saakashvili to subject his electoral process to much closer scrutiny and made him far more sensitive to criticisms from Europe and the U.S. than Chavez could ever be. Criticisms from previous elections about bias in state-owned media and partisan abuse of state resources led to specific reforms that certainly were not revolutionary but probably helped regrade the electoral landscape into more level terrain.

In retrospect, then, I think I can see why Georgia was riper for change than Venezuela was, and how the ambiguity inherent in electoral authoritarian regimes made that contrast hard to spot in advance. Whatever the specific causes, though, I think I need to tweak my mental model of electoral authoritarianism to allow for more uncertainty about the outcome of their elections. My old model emphasized the authoritarian part and saw the elections as pure theater. My new version will be less confident in its judgment of the character of these ambiguous cases, and it will leave more room for those theatrics to have real consequences.

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13 Comments

  1. kerokan@gmail.com

     /  October 8, 2012

    I think a crucial difference between the two cases is that Georgia had “legislative” elections, while Venezuela had “presidential” elections. In other words, Saakashvili had less at stake in these elections than Chavez did and neither leader lost *their* own seat. Saakashvili’s life may be made more difficult now by an opposition-controlled parliament, but if these were presidential elections, I expect he would try harder and play dirtier as well.

    Reply
    • Good point, but don’t the changes to Georgia’s constitution that will kick in next year—when most executive power shifts from the presidency to the prime minister—at least partially negate it?

      Reply
      • kerokan

         /  October 8, 2012

        I did not know about those changes. In that case my point is less important.

  2. Reply
  3. Grant

     /  October 9, 2012

    The difference between a strongly ideological government and a personal power government?
    Alternatively, Ivanishvili might have secured enough elite support that he could both win the election and force Saakashvili to accept the result?

    Reply
  4. Interesting analysis. Do you not think that the war in S. Ossetia might have tipped the election in Ivanishvili’s favour though?

    Reply
    • It hasn’t come up much in what I’ve read and my conversations with people who know Georgian politics better than I. But that doesn’t mean it’s irrelevant. Do you think it was a big factor? If so, how so?

      Reply
      • I tried fairly hard to search for Georgian opinion polls into the matter but to no avail. That means what I’m about to say is pure speculation and fairly unfounded.

        I’d say that losing a war, particularly one as damaging as the one in 2008, could definitely turn public opinion and might have had a long lasting effect on people’s opinion of Saakashvili. Perhaps Ivanishvili taking a less hard line stance on Russia would give the electorate a chance to show this frustration?

  5. Jason Weidner

     /  October 15, 2012

    I would respectfully submit that you “tweak your mental model” about the political situation in Venezuela. Your comments suggest an almost total ignorance of the political reality in Venezuela and faithfully mimic standard US talking points. The fact is that Chavez is incredibly popular, not only in Venezuela, but in many countries throughout the region. Furthermore, Venezuela never has been a fully functioning democracy, something that few in the US foreign policy elite cared about until the social revolution that brought Chavez to power.

    I find it quite interesting that people who have very little direct knowledge and understanding of a particular place nevertheless feel free to present their views as if they might contain something of value. Maybe the sub-heading of the blog is not as much of a rhetorical question as it might seem?

    Reply
    • Thanks for reading and commenting, Jason.

      I’ll be the first to admit that my understanding of Venezuelan politics is shallow, based only on an occasional reading of English-language secondary sources. That said, I don’t think your characterization of my views is fair. A couple of months ago, I wrote a post making exactly the point you’re making to me here: Chavez is genuinely popular, and any realistic assessment of Venezuelan politics has to start from that premise. Maybe you’re reading my assertion that the ruling party tilts the electoral playing field in its own favor—based on evidence amassed by Human Rights Watch and Crisis Group, among others—as a claim that Chavez could not win without those measures, but that’s not how I meant it. Can’t both be true? Can’t Chavez be popular and an electoral “cheater”? That’s a scenario I’ve seen in many other cases—contemporary Russia, for one—and it’s how I read the situation in Venezuela today.

      To your wider point about why people without firsthand knowledge of specific cases feel free to present their views on those cases anyway, well, I wrote a blog post about that a while back, too. Local knowledge is crucial for understanding many things, but there are some questions where a comparative perspective can be very powerful, too. I think observers on both sides of that divide can usually learn a lot by conversing with each other, like we’re doing right now, but that cann’t happen if people who aren’t steeped in a case aren’t even allowed to talk about it.

      Reply
  6. I think the primary problem with Capriles is simply that people did not trust him to represent Venezuela. I.e., people were afraid of a counter-revolution, despite the attempt at soothing. This dynamic is a major reason why most successful new opposition parties tend to be nationalist right–like Ariel Sharon’s party, the BJP, etc, etc. Nobody is going to be able to run wishy-washy reformer and win in Venezuela’s context–nobody’s even really very sure who’s Capriles patrons are, his rise was so fast. Therefore, Devil they know.

    Reply
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