By José Velásquez
A down to earth assessment of results from the legislative elections in Venezuela, held on December 6, should include the following aspects:
Chavismo is Not Done
As striking as it may sound to some ears, about 42 percent of citizens still follow Chavismo no matter what.
This means the opposition is not dealing with an unpopular movement which remains in power by purely artificial resources, but with a political force that is strong enough to escalate conflict at any time.
Breaking Down Numbers
In my previous post, I implied that, vote for vote, the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) did better in the 2015 parliamentary election under Maduro than in 2010 under Chávez.
Moreover, I think that comparing a party’s performance in legislative and presidential elections is like comparing soccer and football. Although both are sports, their rules and crowds are different in many respects.
Historically, presidential elections have higher levels of participation. For instance, more than 15 million voters out of 18.9 million registered went to the polls in the 2012 and 2013 elections, whereas this month’s congressional elections reported 14.3 million valid votes out of 19.5 million voters.
The Opposition’s Potential
Almost 8.1 million citizens voted against the Maduro administration (this is a total of valid and invalid votes). That’s about the highest number of votes Chavismo ever got (8,191,132 approximately), but this happened in the 2012 presidential elections, when Hugo Chávez was alive and the economic situation was different.
In other words, if the opposition obtained said support in a legislative election, it can break Chávez’s record in a presidential recall referendum or in the next presidential election.
The Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) proved that its peaceful formula works in difficult times: take Chavismo to national elections, defeat it with an indisputable majority, and the military — under the pressure of civil society — will do the rest.
The Democratic Constraint
The fact that the ruling elite had to respect the election’s results does not mean that the opposition is facing democrats. Anyone backing paramilitary groups (“colectivos”) can’t be a democrat.
Just as the Chilean economy’s growth under General Augusto Pinochet doesn’t make his government democratic, the Bolivarian Revolution’s social achievements don’t make Venezuela under Chávez and Maduro a true democracy.
True democrats don’t try to establish a parallel legislative institution after losing a parliamentary election, seeking to undermine the opposition’s performance and bypass the will of the people. In a real democracy, the government’s political opponents are not imprisoned illegally.
But my sources assure me that the most weighty factor in this discussion is the involvement of some influential members of the ruling elite, including Diosdado Cabello and Tareck el Aissami, in drug trafficking and other criminal activities.
I bring up these ideological and security issues to anticipate that, whatever comes next, the military will once again prove crucial in settling the ongoing crisis of power.
The electoral results also prove that people blame the Maduro administration for the economic and insecurity crises.
Most Venezuelans did not buy the official story that an “economic war” and the opposition’s paramilitary links to the United States and Colombia are causing their main problems. However, Maduro continues to espouse the theories which voters overwhelmingly rejected.
In my view, Maduro’s plan of blaming the opposition for the country’s problems will likely backfire, since most people understand that the National Assembly can’t implement security policies, nor carry out the economic adjustments that are required. Rather, voters understand that congressmen can enact laws and control the government’s performance.
Even if the Maduro administration miraculously decides to remain within the boundaries of decency, it is not hard to foresee more polarization. One side will aim to provoke the other into acting illegally. Posing as the victim in order to recover lost legitimacy will be the tactic du jour.
In the event the opposition decides to activate the presidential recall referendum, the Maduro administration would not have enough time to sabotage the MUD in Congress. Under this perspective, there is no point for the opposition to leave the democratic route.
2016: A Very Bad Year
Data suggests that the government will be struggling in a perfect storm. The referendum represents the worst-case scenario for President Maduro, since voting is proportional and there is no official challenger; it’s all about his performance.
In that sense, I don’t see how the ineffective “economic war” strategy could help him get the 50+ percent approval he would need to win a referendum. Until now, Chavismo was the majority in Congress since the Constitution was enacted in 1999. Political debate will probably center around the constitutional issue of several accountability clauses which have never been applied before.
After 17 years, political change and legal timing are on the opposition’s side.