[Note: this piece is a sidebar to "The Repeatedly Re-Elected Autocrat."]
“Hugo Chávez is practicing a new style of authoritarianism,” Javier Corrales wrote in Foreign Policy (1-2/06). “Chávez has updated tyranny for today.” While conceding that Venezuela is formally democratic, Corrales went on to list some of the most common accusations against Chávez, emphasizing the supposed lack of separation of powers: “Chávez has achieved absolute control of all state institutions that might check his power.... If democracy requires checks on the power of incumbents, Venezuela doesn’t come close.” This is a common accusation against Chávez; he’s “eliminating all checks on government,” as the L.A. Times put it (4/17/06).
Regarding the separation of powers, it should be noted that Venezuela’s is perhaps the only country in the world that has, in accordance with its 1999 constitution, five branches instead of the usual three. That is, in addition to executive, legislative and judiciary branches, Venezuela also has independent electoral and prosecutorial branches. The constitution provides for checks and balances for each of these branches, just as in most other democratic countries.
Chávez currently controls the executive branch, and his supporters control the other four branches of government. This, however, was only possible because Chávez’s supporters obtained a majority in the legislature, the National Assembly—fair and square—in the 2000 elections. (Not even Venezuela’s most rabid oppositionists deny the fairness of that vote.)
The Venezuelan president has no power to appoint or remove anyone in the other branches. The national assembly appoints the electoral, judicial and prosecutorial branches, and only the judiciary can impeach individuals from the other four branches; the legislature or the judiciary itself can remove supreme court judges.
Constitutionally, Chávez has no power to tell the other branches what to do, nor has he ever violated the constitution to circumvent this restriction. If any branch decided it wanted to make a move against Chávez, there would be nothing he could do about it, other than to appeal to his supporters.