Ruling party emboldened by Venezuela's municipal election results, experts warn

Venezuela’s ruling party made huge gains in the recent municipal elections and reaffirmed its control after the country’s three main opposition parties refused to run candidates. They boycotted because they claim the electoral system is rigged, pointing to reports of electoral fraud (The Wall Street Journal) in gubernatorial elections in October, and reports of voter inflation in the election of the all-powerful National Constituent Assembly in July.

President Nicolás Maduro said his United Socialist Party of Venezuela won at least 300 of the 335 contested mayoral races on December 10. He then declared that the three parties — Democratic Action, Popular Will, and Justice First — are banned from taking part in 2018 presidential elections.

The country’s election board (link in Spanish) put the turnout at 47 percent. Some analysts contest this figure, according Venezuelan daily El Nacional, saying it doesn’t match the number of voters seen on the streets.

Venezuela is suffering through an acute socioeconomic crisis — characterized by grim indicators such as hyperinflation, severe shortages of basic goods (Human Rights Watch), the return of previously banished diseases (The New York Times) — under an increasingly authoritarian regime, which the United States labeled a “dictatorship” earlier this year.

Javier Corrales, an author on contemporary Venezuelan politics and professor of political science at Amherst College, stressed this point in an interview with WikiTribune.

“We are no longer dealing with an electoral democracy. We are working with a dictatorial regime,” he said. “Elections are less of an opportunity to show competitiveness but [rather] a way to trap the opposition.”

Maduro denies the claims and says Venezuela is the victim of sustained economic warfare by the United States and its allies (TeleSur).

“I doubt that another country could withstand the international and national attack in the economic, financial and monetary fields that we have faced,” Maduro said.

WikiTribune also interviewed two other experts on Venezuela to better understand why the opposition did not participate in the recent elections, why they matter, and what’s next for the opposition:

  • Jennifer McCoy, distinguished university professor of political science at Georgia State University, and
  • Quico Toro, executive editor at Caracas Chronicles, an opposition blog that focuses on Venezuelan politics and society.

Why did the opposition choose a strategy that has failed it before?

On the surface, it seems like the opposition’s abstention handed the government an easy win. It’s not the first time the opposition has employed this strategy, with similarly disastrous results in the 2005 legislative elections.

McCoy pinpointed three reasons for the move.

“The first is that they lost and were humiliated” in the October elections, McCoy told WikiTribune, “and they didn’t want to repeat that. Second, they are internally divided… and three is they didn’t want to legitimize this process, which they viewed as completely unfair.”

Toro agreed that the opposition parties don’t want to bless this election, but he argued that even if they had participated, the government would have found a way steal the vote.

“The ground rules of the elections are such that these are not real elections,” Toro said. “The government gets to decide who its opponents are and they get to disqualify the opponents that they don’t want to face. They get to move voting centers around as well.

“There are so many ways to cheat, so many ways to pressure, some of them more brutal, some of them more subtle.”

But Toro was also wary of reading too much into these elections.

“In the scale of needs and priorities… who cares who the mayor is?” he asked. “Once you’re inside a dictatorship like this, who is mayor does not really make that much a difference in people’s lives.”

What are the implications of these results?

Not much in terms of power consolidation for the government, said Corrales, who said he believes they already boast broad control over the country.

Rather, December 10 was important because it “re-convinced the [ruling] party that they have what it takes to win elections,” Corrales said. “What it takes to win elections are a lot of dirty tricks, but they just didn’t know whether they were going to work. And now they know that they can work.”

Corrales believes this might give Maduro’s party enough of a confidence boost to quickly call the 2018 presidential elections.

McCoy agrees: “This will, most likely, embolden the government to call early [presidential] elections. There are rumors of February or March of 2018, while the opposition is in disarray. The opposition for this one showed divisions within itself and an absence of a strategy to deal with the situation.”

For Toro, another important implication of December 10 is what he believes to be the normalization of authoritarian electoral tactics by the government.

It “was the most Cuban-like election we’ve had yet,” he said. “People were going through the physical motions of voting, but they weren’t actually choosing who was gonna govern them in any realistic sense. And that’s becoming normal.”

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