Electoral Storm Clouds in Venezuela

˙ Voces

The economic, political and social crises in Venezuela grow more alarming every day. With elections on the horizon, the end is far from near. Political dysfunction is almost certain to get worse before it gets better.

Two years after the controversial election that ratified President Nicolás Maduro in power, the country prepares to return to the ballots to elect a new National Assembly. The opposition coalition, Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (MUD), seeks to gain control of the legislature as the popularity of the president’s party, the Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV), drops. The elections scheduled for December 6th have far-reaching implications. They could set the stage for an eventual opening of the political and economic system, but could just as likely reinforce the status quo or even bring about a deeper political crisis.

The MUD has seen a rise in its popularity in the last year, with its approval rate at 45.8% compared to just 25% for the PSUV, according to Datanálisis. With the economy shrinking, inflation rising and the country approaching what many have referred to as a humanitarian crisis, Venezuelans are eager for a change in their national leadership. The MUD is positioned to gain seats in the National Assembly, but various factors could keep approval rates from translating to a majority.

Vote share is only one part of the equation. Venezuela’s semi-proportional electoral system has strongly benefited the PSUV in the past by providing less representation to MUD strongholds. It allows for PSUV to win all seats in districts they control and at least one seat in the ones controlled by the MUD—a situation somewhere between gerrymandering and outright electoral manipulation. For example, in 2010 the race was extremely close, with 48% for the PSUV with and 47% for the MUD. However, the ruling party earned 33 more seats in the assembly than the opposition. For the MUD to win a majority in the national assembly, they need to win a large number of nominal districts—an uphill battle in unfriendly territory.

An MUD win is also contingent on free and fair elections. The National Electoral Council (CNE) announced that the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) will send a “misión de acompañamiento electoral,” an electoral accompaniment mission. However, the opposition has requested an observation mission that adheres to international standards and that is carried in advance of elections, instead of just on election day. Observation during the campaign could guarantee that public funds are not used by the PSUV and that campaigning laws are followed.

As the US and Venezuela have a series of conversations aimed at improving relations, the opposition hoped that pressure from Washington could provide the push they needed to secure international observation. Opposition leader Henrique Capriles even visited the OAS headquarters to request observers. However, Maduro has harshly ruled out any possibility of international observation and accused Almagro of serving the “Empire.” “Venezuela is not and will not be monitored by anyone,” said Maduro while visiting the UN last week. OAS pressure has failed and at this point, the US is likely not willing to spend more political capital and upset the status quo. The possibility of serious electoral observation seems less and less viable. In part, the government’s rejection of observers could be a deliberate strategy to demoralize and discourage opposition voters, with the aim of decreasing turnout. If MUD voters conclude that the election is hopeless and stay home, their cynicism could—at least to some extent—be self-fulfilling. 

Beyond turnout, the MUD will also have to overcome internal issues just less than six months before the parliamentary elections. Since its formation, the coalition has struggled to maintain a unified front while presenting an appealing message to current or former beneficiaries of PSUV policies. The coalition problems are internal and external. As they attempt to construct a coherent coalition, they will also have to adapt any rule changes that regime-controlled institutions may enact in order to tip the electoral scales. For example, on June 25th, the government imposed gender quotas on parties—potentially disqualifying many male MUD candidates—and imposed arbitrary sanctions on important opposition figures. The MUD even fears that the CNE will not allow them to run as a coalition, forcing the opposition to compete as independent parties. This could all but terminate any possibility of a victory since it would dilute the MUD’s results in proportional districts.

For many in the opposition, though, the obstacles are worth the risk. This election is the likeliest path to a change in government before Maduro’s term ends in 2019. If the MUD obtains a majority in the assembly, it could pursue a presidential recall referendum in 2016. A majority would also give them a much clearer path to economic and social reform.

However, even if the MUD wins the election, it faces an uphill battle in obtaining recognition and in legislating freely—President Maduro has already vowed “to take to the streets” if the opposition wins, while the CNE could deem the election illegitimate and not recognize the results. Maduro would also be able to use his decree powers to bypass the national assembly on economic and security issues and the current representatives could centralize power in the executive before relinquishing control to the opposition to weaken the legislature’s influence.

And, above all, if the MUD fails to win—or win meaningfully—a PSUV victory would most likely result in further centralization of power and resources in the Presidency. The economic reforms that many consider necessary to lower inflation and stimulate economic growth would be highly improbable. Social unrest would also likely increase as economic conditions and violence worsen.  Accordingly, the government might increase the intensity of repression in order to silence growing dissent and opposition, a problem compounded if divisions within the PSUV increase and become more evident.

Finally, all of this presumes that elections actually take place. Assuming current opinion trends continue, Maduro’s preferred options may be to either cancel the elections—citing an economic or political emergency—or attempt to steal them.

Under any scenario—even the most optimistic one—the situation in Venezuela is apt to get worse before it gets better. The December elections could strip PSUV from its majority in the National Assembly but will certainly not solve the country’s ongoing political crisis.