HUGO CHÁVEZ must be feeling grateful to the number-crunchers who helped him redraw Venezuela’s congressional districts. The strongman turned last weekend’s National Assembly election into a referendum on himself; he inundated the country with propaganda via the state-controlled media and even refilled government food stores. The result was an unmistakable rebuff. On a day of heavy turnout, 52 percent of voters chose opposition parties, vs. 48 percent for Mr. Chávez’s Socialists.
In a normal democratic country — even in Venezuela itself up until this year — that outcome would have produced something close to a tie between government and non-government deputies in the congress. Instead, thanks to the blatant gerrymandering he ordered, Mr. Chávez probably will have 98 seats, compared with 67 for the main opposition coalition and a small leftist party. That allowed the caudillo to claim victory in a news conference, during which he heaped abuse on a reporter who dared to ask about the discrepancy between votes and seats.
Mr. Chávez, however, didn’t deliver the victory address he had planned from the balcony of the presidential palace — an encouraging sign that he grasps the election’s real implications. In addition to the popular repudiation, the result means that beginning in December, Mr. Chávez should no longer have the ability to rule by decree or to appoint supreme court justices and members of the electoral authority without the opposition’s consent. He also faces the threat that his announced plan to rule Venezuela for at least another decade will be interrupted in 2012, when a presidential election is due that should be decided by majority vote.
There was good reason for Mr. Chávez’s loss: Alone in Latin America, Venezuela is still deep in recession, and it leads the hemisphere in inflation and violent crime. A normal democratic leader might respond by correcting errant or highly unpopular policies, such as Mr. Chávez’s steady nationalization of the economy or his import of Cuban advisers and intelligence operatives. His record, however, suggests that the president will merely step up his attacks on opposition leaders and journalists — a number of whom have been imprisoned or driven into exile — and seek to circumvent the new checks on his power.
Mr. Chávez’s apologists will be pointing to the congressional vote as proof that he still leads a democracy. But in democracies, elections produce consequences in line with the results. In Mr. Chávez’s Venezuela, they usually lead to less democracy.