Something quite remarkable happened in Venezuela last Sunday. Hugo Chavez did not get what he wanted. By a vote of 51% to 49%, the people of Venezuela voted against Chavez' radical proposals to alter his country's constitution. They refused to hand him even more discretionary power than he already has. They also made it impossible for him (for the moment) to continue to run for the Presidency until he was 95, as Chavez boasted that he wished to do. Perhaps more remarkable still, President Chavez, after some initial hesitation, accepted the verdict of the people, despite the fact that he was defeated by a very small margin—only 2%. Indeed, Chavez appeared to take his defeat philosophically, conceding that his program might have been too ambitious for the present.
Matters did not have to end this way. Prior to the election, Chavez had made charges that the United States was trying to steal the election from him. His 2% margin of defeat was tiny enough that Chavez might have persuaded his devoted supporters that a conspiracy of Yankee imperialists had indeed robbed them of his rightful triumph. Chavez, the wily demagogue, has often played the anti-American card to great effect, and it is conceivable he may have debated about playing it once again in the immediate aftermath of his defeat. It would have been easy to manufacture evidence of American interference, and to argue, on this basis, that the elections were invalid. Such a gambit would have saved Chavez face. It would also have provided him with an excuse to hold another election—one in which he could exercise a great deal more care counting the votes than he did in the last election.
Of course, it is always possible that Hugo Chavez did the right thing for the right reason—I am personally inclined to give people every benefit of the doubt, and perhaps President Chavez is genuinely committed to the principles of democracy, and does not aspire to become dictator. But there is another explanation that does not tax our charitable impulses unduly, and the key to this explanation comes from a thinker who is probably not high up on the list of Chavez' idols, namely, the Austrian philosopher Friedrich Hayek, whose realistic analysis of democracy sheds some interesting light on Chavez' decision to abide by the election results.
Hayek, like his compatriot Karl Popper, had mixed feeling about democracy. Both knew very well that democracies could vote themselves out of existence at the bidding of populist demagogues like Hugo Chavez. This had happened to the short-lived French Republic when Louis Napoleon had used popular elections, with universal suffrage, in order to make himself dictator, showing the path that would be followed by both Mussolini and Hitler in the twentieth century, who also used democratic elections in order to destroy the democratic system. Because all democracies vest sovereignty in the people, the people will always have the power not only to elect demagogues, but to change even their constitution at the behest of the demagogues they have elected, making it virtually impossible to erect a foolproof barrier against the rise of a dictator. Indeed, this is exactly what Chavez asked the Venezuela people to do in the recent election, namely, to thrown out the safeguards put in their constitution precisely to prevent someone like himself from seizing absolute power.
This brings us back to the question, Why didn't Chavez find a pretext to invalidate the election? What stopped him from doing this, I would argue, was not his respect for the existing constitution, which he was obviously willing to toss aside, nor was it his great love for the abstract principles of democracy, which he was willing to manipulate for his own purposes. What stopped him was simply the sobering realization that if he refused to accept the result of the election he would be faced with an outright rebellion among his political enemies, like the coup that removed him from power in 2002.
Hayek believed that democratic elections were valuable because they could prevent bloodshed and civil strife, like the 2002 coup. To see how this works, consider how elections took place among primitive armed tribes. To vote for someone to be your leader, you got up and stood next to the man you supported. By doing this, you were indicating that you would fight on your leader's side against his opponent. Hence the result of the primitive election was to disclose the relative power, in terms of armed supporters, of the various candidates. If one candidate had ninety men standing around him, while the other had only ten, then it was obvious that in an armed struggle the weaker side would lose and the stronger side would win. As a result, the man with only ten supporters would concede defeat, acting on the principle that it is better to lose an election than to lose one's head. By the same logic, when two men had nearly equal support, then this too sent a signal to the community—namely, that unless the two sides would work out a compromise, they would be plunged into a civil war that would inevitably end by weakening the community's capacity to survive struggle against their collective enemies. In short, the primitive election was a way to avoid bloody power struggles that would end up destroying the solidarity of the community.
By gracefully accepting his defeat at the poll, Hugo Chavez was skillfully averting a much worse defeat in the streets. If all the population knew that half the population had defied his bid for power, then it was obvious that there would be ferocious resistance to any attempt on Chavez' part to seize what he wanted by fraud. How ferocious this resistance might be had already been shown in 2002. It was a risk that Chavez chose not to take—but only after looking at the election returns.
Paradoxically, it was Venezuela's history of political instability, the knowledge that he could be unconstitutionally removed from power by a coup d'etat that led Hugo Chavez to abandon his efforts at mangling the constitution that is the only remaining obstacle to his own dictatorial ambitions.
In short, the happy outcome of Venezuela's most recent election should not be construed as showing that Hugo Chavez harbors no dictatorial ambitions, but neither should it be taken to be proof of the infallible wisdom of the democratic system. Instead, it indicates what we should suspect already—namely, that Hugo Chavez is no fool, and he is prepared to be prudent in order to get what he wants. And one day, he still may.