By Michael M. McCarthy*
Twenty-four long months since their country’s last national election, Venezuelans head back to the polls to elect a new National Assembly on December 6 in a tense political climate – with no promise that the government will respect the opposition’s near-certain victory. All 167 seats in the unicameral body will be up for grabs in a race polarized between Chavismo’s pro government coalition and the Mesa de Unidad Democrática opposition coalition. Thanks largely to a rapidly deteriorating economy, the government’s approval rating decreased from 50 percent in 2013 to 20 percent in September, according to the national Venebarómetro poll. A range of polls in September indicated the MUD is poised to win either a simple or “qualified” (60 percent) majority. Observers generally agree that the main measure of success for Chavismo is preventing the MUD from obtaining a two-thirds majority, and that blocking a qualified majority would be a major triumph.
For ordinary Venezuelans the campaign is overshadowed by the massive economic crisis. Skyrocketing inflation, severe shortages of basic goods and services, and reduced social assistance programs are contributing to tensions on the street, where the campaign is not as present as in years past. Nevertheless, heavy turnout is still expected – 66 percent of eligible voters participated in the last National Assembly elections in 2010, and pollsters report a strong intention to vote.
- The MUD has shaped its campaign around leveraging the vote as a mechanism for punishing economic mismanagement and restoring some institutional balance to a political system that barely reflects opposition voices at the national level. Skepticism of the National Electoral Board, which rejected the MUD’s request for international electoral observation by the OAS, EU or UN, has increased. Slashes to budgetary support for opposition governors and mayors, while the government channels funds to unelected parallel state and municipal authorities, make supporters wonder whether a victory will be fully respected.
- The government refreshed its slate of candidates by promoting generational and gender diversity, but stalwarts, including current National Assembly leader Diosdado Cabello, remain prominent. The party is distributing last-minute pork to mobilize voters, and it’s working the system’s rural bias – each department is automatically allocated three deputies – where strong government presence gives it a strategic advantage. Strikingly, the Chávez legacy has become a liability for President Maduro because the former President was much more charismatic and economic conditions were considerably better during his tenure.
The Maduro administration seems to have run out of diversionary moves after exaggerated external threats from Colombia and Guyana faded. It is also on the defensive after the Rousseff administration, Maduro’s most powerful diplomatic partner, expressed unhappiness about Caracas’s opposition to its choice of a Brazilian political heavyweight to lead UNASUR’s “electoral accompaniment mission.” The President has also been set on back on his heels by intensified international criticism of the trial and conviction of opposition leader Leopoldo López, who, according to a state attorney who worked the case, was sent to jail for 14 years on fraudulent charges. Regardless of the outcome on December 6, the direction of the country is highly uncertain. Maduro has said he’ll accept the results “whatever they are,” but he has also said “we have to win, by whatever means possible” (como sea and cualquier manera), and that if the opposition wins “I will not hand over the revolution” but rather “proceed to govern with the people in a civic-military union.” In the next couple weeks, the government may still try to throw the opposition off course, but the MUD does not seem interested in renewing street protests – more violence is unlikely to advance its objectives. Neither do its leaders seem confident that a renewal of talks on rebuilding democratic institutions will help.
November 9, 2015
* Michael McCarthy is a Research Fellow with the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies.