No matter who wins, Sunday’s elections will not be chavismo’s last stand

Despite a late surge in the election campaign, socialist president Nicolás Maduro still faces a major defeat in this weekend’s elections for Venezuela’s National Assembly.

In a set of free and fair elections, it would not be difficult to predict that Venezuela’s long-suffering opposition would win a wide majority in December 6’s legislative elections; for many Venezuelans, despite marked disadvantages, the question is not whether the opposition will win, but by how much.Venezuela Flag Icon

That doesn’t mean the anti-chavista coalition Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (MUD, Democratic Unity Roundtable) is anywhere near taking real power in Venezuela. No matter what happens, on December 7, Venezuelans will still wake up to president Nicolás Maduro, the oft-ridiculed successor to the late Hugo Chávez. Maduro only narrowly won the presidency in April 2013, following Chávez’s death, and Venezuela’s economy, already in dire trouble two years ago, has failed dramatically ever since.

What’s more, short of a massive supermajority, Venezuela will be gridlocked for the next three years when the next presidential election will held, at a time when its economy has reached crisis-level proportions of failure.

Dependence on oil revenues meant that even before global oil prices plummeted, Venezuelans were facing shortages of basic products, from food to medical supplies to toilet paper, and inevitable scenes of government-mandated rationing. Massive inflation, in tandem with an unofficially depreciating currency, has inflicted even greater economic pain for a country dependent on foreign imports, at least for those without access to US dollars. The economy is expected to contract by as much as 10% in a single year, making Venezuela’s the worst-performing in the world in 2015. Earlier this spring, conditions were so bad that chavista supporters took to throwing mangoes at Maduro at political events in desperate search of basic necessities. Maduro, meanwhile, has campaigned hard on Chávez’s memory and fear tactics that the opposition will reverse the government’s many social welfare programs.

Voters will be choosing all 167 members of the Asamblea Nacional (National Assembly), where the chavistas currently hold 99 seats, while the opposition coalition holds just 64.  Yet few observers believe that the Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV, United Socialist Party of Venezuela), the chavista party that for 16 years has governed the country in a way that’s blurred the line between political and governance activity, can win a majority in the elections. Datanálisis, one of Venezuela’s most respected polls, pitted the opposition coalition’s support at over 63%, with just 28% support for the chavistas in an October poll. Over at Caracas Chronicles, Francisco Toro argues that, for the first time in years, the December 6 elections represent the re-introduction of ‘politics’ to Venezuelan life.

But for a country where chavismo has now become so entrenched in its government and commerce, no one knows for sure exactly what the MUD’s margin of victory might be and how many seats it will ultimately procure. Under the dual voting system, most members are elected in single-seat districts, while 30% are elected by closed-list proportional representation. Rural areas, where the poorest voters support Maduro and chavismo more strongly for the generous social welfare programs introduced since 1999, are over-represented, as compared to urban areas, where the opposition’s support is strongest. A simply majority will give the opposition less power than a three-fifths majority or a two-thirds majority, with which the MUD could even forced a recall referendum against Maduro. 

Venezuela is simply not a normal country, politically speaking. So a MUD win will only create more uncertainty. Even in a highly developed country like the United States with a strong democratic tradition, the Obama era has shown that divided government can produce odd outcomes. In a country like Venezuela, it could push the country to levels of tension approaching civil war.

Maduro and the chavistas today control every organ of the government, from the state oil company (Petróleos de Venezuela S.A., PdVSA) to the agencies that determine the value of the Venezuela peso to the judicial system and the military and police forces. Tibisay Lucena, the head of the country’s National Electoral Council (CNE), is one of the most avowedly partisan chavistas in government. Electing a simple majority or even a three-fifths majority of opposition legislators to the National Assembly will not change that.

There’s absolutely nothing about the chavista playbook that suggests it is willing to engage in a fair, good-faith campaign. Protests that began in February 2014, in response to economic collapse and shortages of basic goods, have allowed Maduro and the government to imprison opposition leaders, including former Chacao mayor Leopoldo López, who founded one of the parties of the MUD coalition, Voluntad Popular (Popular Will), and former Caracas mayor Antonio Ledezma, on charges widely described as politically motivated. Government officials benefit from a media far tilted in their favor, and there’s little left in the way of a truly independent press. Last week, opposition figure Luis Manuel Díaz was assassinated, and even Brazil, where the governing party has long supported chavismo, pulled out of UNASUR’s election monitoring team because the circumstances are so comically unfair.

Despite the peso‘s collapse, forcing wages to meager levels in real terms, Maduro has announced five minimum wage increases this year in a bid to prevent a massive migration of voters to the opposition. While the ruling party has a far superior advantage in mobilizing and turning out voters (especially among the rural and urban poor), the government has also been engaged in massive handouts of items like tablet computers to potential voters. In his more outlandish moments, Maduro has even suggested that he will deploy the military if his party loses on December 6.

Short of a military confrontation, the chavistas have other options.

Twice in his short presidential administration, Maduro has sought and received an ‘Enabling Law’ allowing him to rule by decree in light of Venezuela’s economic emergencies — from November 2013 to November 2014 and again from March 2015 through December 31 of this year. There’s absolutely nothing stopping Maduro from forcing through another Enabling Law to extend emergency rule before opposition legislators are allowed to take their seats in the National Assembly, thereby further reducing their meager power.

Diosdado Cabello, who currently serves as the president of Venezuela's National Assembly, is the chavista to watch after the Dec. 6 elections.
Diosdado Cabello, who currently serves as the president of Venezuela’s National Assembly, is the chavista to watch after the Dec. 6 elections.

The PSUV’s leader in the National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello, is perhaps even more powerful than Maduro. A pragmatic socialist (in contrast with the more revolutionary true believers in chavsimo, like Maduro or foreign minister Elías Jaua), Cabello is smarter, wilier, more ruthless and more corrupt — he’s amassed a personal fortune and family members hold key positions in the National Assembly and throughout the government. Once called the ‘Frank Underwood of Venezuela’ by The Atlantic, Cabello has used legislative power to undermine, ridicule and emasculate the opposition throughout the Maduro era. He is also allegedly tied to some of the most unsavory elements of the Venezuelan underworld, including drug traffickers, and he knows exactly how to maximize the choke points in the National Assembly to make life as hard as possible for the MUD if and when it wins a majority on Sunday. If events spiral out of control, it’s not ridiculous to suggest that Cabello, who once rivaled Maduro as Chávez’s presumptive heir, could use the tumult to displace Maduro and take power himself.

What’s clear is that, with or without Maduro leading it, chavismo isn’t simply going to go away after a drubbing in the elections. December 6 isn’t the end of chavismo — it’s only the beginning of what could be an incredibly polarizing and even violent process.

Even if all goes well in the elections, the opposition wins a glowing majority and the chavistas accept the electoral verdict in a ‘normal’ manner, the MUD may find that it will be even more difficult to maintain its unity once it has grasped at least some power. López and the opposition’s presidential candidate, Henrique Capriles, did not always seen eye-to-eye about how far the 2014 anti-chavista protests should go. The coalition consists of more than a half-dozen parties, which range from hard-right social conservatives to reformed chavistas. The MUD includes the two old-school parties that vied for patronage in the last half of the 20th century (Democratic Action and COPEI), but also new parties based around popular figures like Capriles, López and others, like Lara state governor Henri Falcón or former Zulia governor Pablo Pérez.

Given that what promises to be a messy transition from chavismo will not be fully complete until a president election removes Maduro, tensions will invariably rise over strategy (whether the opposition is being too aggressive or not aggressive enough) and over substance. If and when Capriles or another opposition figure wins the Venezuelan presidency, it will be much harder to find a consensus on how to eliminate fuel subsidies or determine which chavista social programs to protect and which to cut.

With either a small or a large margin, however, the MUD’s first task will to be to find a way to start guiding Venezuela into a post-chavismo future and to do so united enough to remain focused on the 2019 presidential election. Just because it controls the National Assembly doesn’t mean it will have enough power to reverse 16 years of socialist policy. Between now and the next presidential election in 2018, Maduro (no stranger to conspiracy theories) might even be able to blame Venezuela’s miseries on his opponents.

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