Venezuela Is in a Dark Place, But There Are Ways Forward

Venezuelan elections, characterized by unequal media access, unfair use of public financing and pressure on public employees to support government-backed candidates, have long disadvantaged the opposition. However, in light of President Nicolás Maduro’s public approval ratings hovering around 20% and Venezuela’s current recession, the opposition Democratic Unity coalition (MUD) thought it could easily win at least half of the gubernatorial elections on October 15, 2017. When the national election council announced the results, however, it showed the opposition winning only five of the 23 races.

The electoral gambit followed four months of protests that also failed to bring about any change in government policies, leading many in the opposition to despair about any relief from the downward spiral of the country’s economy and democracy. A change in priorities and strategy to bolster a broader citizen movement and emphasize measures to address the current crises can provide a roadmap for Venezuelans and international actors desiring to assist the country.

Since the opposition’s loss, the coalition has openly split, with recriminations and competing strategies about how to confront an increasingly authoritarian regime. The Venezuelan government, meanwhile, buoyed by its success, announced mayoral elections for December, forcing opposition political parties to decide again whether to participate in a snap and tainted election process or to boycott the elections altogether.

The October 15 election outcomes were the result of two competing factors, although the weight of each is difficult to determine. The first includes new manipulation tactics employed by the government, including disqualifying popular candidates, moving voting centers from opposition strongholds to more dangerous and distant locations to suppress the vote, and, apparently, changing actual vote counts. The second factor contributing to October’s results was a higher abstention rate among opposition voters than among government voters, which, at least in part, was a problem of the MUD’s own making; One faction of the party openly called for abstention and declared that anyone participating in the election would be lending legitimacy to an illegal governing body.

The October 15 elections thus signaled that the government was willing to resort to more explicitly fraudulent and repressive measures to hold onto power. The Maduro government refused to install the winner of an election for the first time since the inception of the Bolivarian Revolution in 1999. Both former President Hugo Chávez and Maduro had at one point or another usurped the power of elected bodies by naming parallel authorities or removed officials based on (dubious) allegations of electoral fraud. But when the government ousted the announced governor-elect of Zulia because he refused to participate in a swearing-in ceremony before the National Constituent Assembly appointed in July, it went a step further and openly flouted the voters’ will.

The government also appeared to engage in manipulation of the electronic vote count for the first time in a regularly scheduled contested election. Until now, most of the demonstrated voting irregularities were aimed at influencing those who voted and how they did they did so, but the voting machines withstood audits measuring the integrity of their count. On October 15 in the state of Bolívar, at least 11 voting machine results were entered by hand, rather than electronically transmitted, appearing to change the winner in that state race.

Opponents to the Maduro government, as well as the concerned international community, thus face stark choices about how best to influence a government engaged in illicit activity and visibly bent on maintaining power at all costs. The MUD is in disarray and disoriented, still focused on regime change but unsure how to get there given the failures of street protests and elections. The largest opposition parties announced their intention to boycott the municipal elections, but still hope to participate in presidential elections in 2018. The problem is, nothing will change to improve conditions for presidential elections without a broader strategy.

The Lima Group of Foreign Ministers met in Toronto, Canada on October 26 and added three points to their previous declarations: i) a call to review the entire electoral system and renew its authorities; ii) a nudge to the opposition to “get its act together” and unify; iii) a request to the United Nations to get involved. Taken together, these points comprise the elements of a broader strategy, as detailed below.

·      Are elections still worthwhile? In an electoral authoritarian regime, which holds manipulated elections to claim a democratic legitimacy while ensuring that the incumbent will win, the game is a two-level one. Opponents must participate in each election, with the chance they might overwhelm the manipulations and actually win, while also working to change the rules of the larger political game.

Even with extremely unfavorable conditions, the opposition managed in the past to win elections for important mayorships, governorships and legislative majorities.  Independents and smaller parties have registered to run in the December 10  municipal elections, and this provides an opportunity for Venezuelan civil society to monitor, document and denounce irregularities. It may not change the outcomes, but participation and systematic documentation can unmask and delegitimize the government’s attempted democratic veneer if it resorts to fraud and repression. The international community can support such efforts by creating an independent international study mission, even without observer credentials, to report on the context of the elections in key municipalities.

Boycotting unfair elections simply delivers all power to the governing party. Such a power hand-off exacts no cost to the victor, but demands a high price from the opposition and its supporters in losing local control of resources, police and protest permissions. It is therefore better to contest and force the government to compete than to allow it to win with no effort. Unmasking fraud, in turn, provides leverage to demand a change in the larger political game.

·      Should the opposition MUD coalition reconstitute itself? The MUD has long striven to balance two competing strategies: rapid regime change through popular street pressure and international condemnation, versus accumulating political strength through successive elections. It has been most effective when uniting for specific electoral events, but ineffective in developing an inclusive social coalition or concrete policy commitments to attract a broader electorate and induce splits in the ruling party. The evident fracture in the MUD now may provide an opportunity to Venezuelan civil society to broaden its coalition formation efforts. Political parties should consider new generations of leadership and consult with NGOs to benefit from their expertise. Youth, neighborhood, labor and business organizations have the power to mobilize citizens. Moreover, dissident chavistas and independents offer partnerships that could help depolarize Venezuelan politics.

·       Should regime change or other priorities be emphasized? The UN should respond to the Lima Group call by pressing Venezuelan leaders to address the urgent crises of public health and nutrition, in addition to the human rights abuses in the country already under scrutiny by international organizations. Even more fundamentally, the long-term health of the economy and environment needs immediate attention; the gutting of the productive capacity of Venezuela’s oil, manufacturing and agricultural sectors must be reversed now to begin the long climb back towards sustainability.

The opposition’s dream of immediate regime change is simply not in the cards. The long, slow haul of organizing broad coalitions and motivating citizens to vote even in unfair conditions is the path to change.  Local citizens’ determination to participate on December 10 is an encouraging sign. Together with international penalties for illicit behavior and incentives for humanitarian relief, this roadmap could interrupt Venezuela’s current slide into a failed economy and a repressive state.

Jennifer McCoy is a Distinguished University Professor of Political Science at Georgia State University and the author of International Mediation in Venezuela (USIP Press, 2011).