Venezuela’s Supermajority Reconsidered

Any numerical representation of people has institutional and moral consequences. This is especially so in Venezuela where Chavistas consistently had a monopoly on being the majority and used it to discount opposition as los escualidos (the few, rotten elites), a characterization that is now less credible with the recent elections.


On 6 December 2015, the day of Saint Nicholas, the Venezuelan opposition received a supermajority in voting for the country’s national assembly ending 16 years of electoral dominance by Hugo Chávez and his Socialist Party (PSUV). Most reports of the recent elections focus on the prerogatives that will be available to opposition in the National Assembly (AN) as a result of its supermajority and the ways in which the government of Nicolas Maduro (Chavez’s successor) might respond. It is no small thing that the AN, with a supermajority, can initiate a recall of President Maduro or members of the Supreme Court, or that the current Supreme Court has the right to evaluate the constitutionality of such efforts.

Both President Maduro and the opposition leadership in the AN have institutional authority as a result of winning majorities in elections (Maduro in 2013, the opposition in 2015). But any numerical representation of people (supermajority, majority, minority) has institutional (who chairs what committees) and moral consequences (who is the majority that rules). This is especially so in Venezuela where Chavistas consistently had a virtual monopoly on being the majority and used it to discount opposition as los escualidos (the few and rotten elites), a characterization that is less credible after the recent elections.

Of mathematics and morality

Elections transform a sum of votes (X million for A, Y million for B) into a majority and minority. Rule by the people (democracy) generally means rule by those elected by the majority. In other words, a government’s right to rule comes from its endorsement by a majority. Whether a government receives 52%, 66%, or 75% of the vote, its right to rule is no greater (in parliamentary systems, non-majority support can often turn into a majority of seats for a governing coalition).

A supermajority does not make a government more legitimate but it does translate into holding more institutional power (leading committees, more control over agendas, and additional prerogatives—such as overturning a presidential veto). In terms of legitimacy, which is a moral claim, there is no difference between majority and supermajority rule. In terms of authority, which is an institutional fact, there is.

While a majority enables the authority of a government, a minority often constrains. It resists, questions, insists on process and, more generally, aims to reduce the scope and speed of government action. There is certainly a value in this, particularly in modern liberal democracies which recognize existential and political rights of minorities as minorities. A minority’s right to participate in rule is legitimate as it represents members of the citizenry. As with the majority, its legitimacy does not depend on size—a minority is no more legitimate with 48% than with 33% of the votes. It does, however, receive less formal representation in political offices.

These are the words of a political scientist, but a politician or activist may say quite the opposite. A minority might be portrayed as presenting roadblocks to the enactment of the people’s will, a characterization of the opposition frequently used by Chavistas. They see themselves as a supermajoritary that created a government that should be empowered to advance a socialist, democratic revolution. The opposition generally believes the government’s majority support is the result of manipulation of the poor through polarizing language and profligate distribution of state resources, the latter facilitated by the lack of oversight of the government. Tellingly, for much of the last 16 years, Chavista-dominated national assemblies have granted extensive “enabling laws” to both president Chávez and Maduro, and opposition figures have opposed these and demanded greater accountability particularly of the president.

Ex post Chávez

 The death of Chávez and declining commodity prices have contributed to a difficult mandate for Maduro who won the 2013 presidential elections with 50.6% of the vote. The majority was narrow enough that opposition concerns about irregularities, if correct, could have swayed the results. Opposition leaders early on challenged but eventually accepted the results.

One year later, masses of protestors demanded an “exit” from the Maduro government, leading to the arrest of a number of opposition leaders. Rather than see the government as deluding or coopting the people, these opposition leaders now argued that the people did not want the Maduro regime. Maduro dismissed the leaders as elites who wanted to regain lost privileges and, despite photos of large crowds in public squares, barricaded neighborhoods, and road-blocked highways, insisted that support for the protests was confined to a small minority. Following the recent AN elections, the opposition can finally claim that it holds not only a majority but a supermajority.

Monopoly lost?

Chavismo has always defined itself as supermajoritarian and used that identity to legitimize its politics. But now President Maduro, who has struggled to hold together the leadership of Chavez’s party, must lead a political movement that can no longer claim a monopoly over the majority. In fact, in Venezuela’s currently divided government, no one can claim such a monopoly now.

In an election between these two polarized political groupings, the advance of one has meant the decline of the other; it is zero-sum. But multiple elections have produced overlapping mandates, as well as state officials whom have been appointed by people elected at different times. The same electorate elected Maduro and the current National Assembly: both are legitimate in that a majority endorsed both.

This is a plea for humility. The members of the opposition coalition currently have the support of a supermajority but have not always enjoyed it. They should see in the governments of the past 16 years something similar. They may disagree with some or all of those governments’ actions but they should recognize that they are empowered by the same majoritarian claim. As such, they should also be sensitive to the position of the minority—a position they held for so long—and seek to govern in a way that respects political opponents.

The Maduro government sees parallels between the current opposition victory amidst poor government performance, weak oil prices, rising violence and the conditions that led to the first election of Hugo Chávez. It should recognize that democracy grants no party permanent office. (Winning 1, 2, or 8 consecutive elections does not guarantee future elections.) Rather than seeking confrontation between the executive and AN, the government should seek to improve opportunities for voice and institutional authority for its supporters (now “opposition”) within the AN.

This is not easily done. To be a majority and recognize the equality of the claims of the minority is not easy. Having the supermajority means that you can win most votes, occupy all leadership positions, and control the agenda. But how you frame the legislation to be voted upon, how leadership is exercised, and to what extent the agenda is accessible will reflect your awareness that your supermajority is not permanent and that the other coalition also speaks for the people. An institutional analysis of supermajority highlights how the opposition can now dominate leadership positions in the AN and viably challenge the Maduro government. A moral evaluation of the mathematical share suggests that opposition should be wary of domination. It is unwise to separate the institutional and the moral, particularly at a point where there is such uncertainty and the stakes so high.


Tony Spanakos is Associate Professor of Political Science and Law at Montclair State University. He is the co-editor of Reforming Brazil (2004), Conceptualising Comparative Politics (2015), and a forthcoming special issue of Latin American Perspectives on “The Legacy of Hugo Chávez.” He was a Fulbright Scholar in Brazil (2002) and Venezuela (2008) and has written extensively on Latin American politics. You can follow him on the NYC subway.

More Commentary

Scroll to Top