The Nobel prize-winning Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa predicted that Venezuela’s ruling party would be “wiped out in free elections,” which is exactly what happened last Sunday, December 6.
The two-thirds majority secured by the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) in Venezuela’s Congress was a pleasant surprise for most people, including many within the opposition. The obvious question now is how this historic victory over Chavismo was possible.
1. The Military
My sources in Venezuela have told me that the army did not allow the ruling elite to steal the election this time. Prominent outlets like ABC and El Nuevo Herald have also confirmed this information.
In the 2013 presidential elections, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) allegedly altered the results, and the opposition decided it wasn’t worth it to challenge the tiny 1.4 percent difference in the vote. However, on December 6, the government would have had to engage in massive fraud to alter the 14 percent difference, and that could have caused a bloodbath.
To get a sense of how serious the defeat was, consider that the PSUV lost in the 23 de Enero slum, Caracas’s Chavista stronghold and home of the Tupamaro and Alexis Vive, two notorious paramilitary groups known locally as colectivos. Chavistas losing here is like the opposition losing in the affluent Chacao District; it’s not supposed to happen.
Unlike previous elections, the army prevented the colectivos from frightening voters in 23 de Enero and key polling stations throughout the country.
Despite some irregularities during the election, the violence was not widespread. This remarkable shift is probably what caused the downfall of congressional candidate Freddy Bernal, a prominent hardliner within the colectivos.
2. Gerrymandering Tactics Backfired
Francisco Ameliach and other members of the ruling elite disregarded experts’ warnings that the electoral system could eventually hit Chavismo hard.
In the 1990s, Venezuela adopted the German model of proportional representation, so that small political parties could get seats in Congress. Then, in 2009, Chavismo gerrymandered electoral districts to gain more seats and smash the opposition in the 2010 congressional elections, taking advantage of the broader support they had in rural areas.
This move backfired last Sunday. Chavismo is now the new minority. Even though they got 43 percent of the vote, under their own rules, they could only secure 55 out of 167 seats in the National Assembly.
3. The Protest Vote
A lot of disappointed Chavistas decided to punish the Maduro administration, which has left the oil-rich country on the verge of a humanitarian crisis.
Most independents didn’t vote for the opposition as much as they voted against Chavismo. According to polling firm Datanálisis, while over 70 percent of Venezuelans dislike president Maduro, some 53 percent also disapprove of the MUD.
5. The Grassroots
The MUD capitalized on a successful grassroots campaign. Chavismo went from 5,777,303 votes in 2010 to just 5,999,047 in 2015, whereas the MUD grew from 5,320,364 votes to about 7,707,422.
Numbers Don’t Explain Everything
I am not against hard data. On the contrary, statistics are paramount to society, as the 2015 Nobel Laureate in Economics, Angus Deaton, once stressed. High-quality studies from pollsters like Luis Vicente León and Jesús Seguías are essential to me.
Nevertheless, I believe recent events have proved my point that we should pay more attention to qualitative issues when it comes to elections in Venezuela. Major contributing factors, like the army’s decision to respect the popular vote, are absent from these polls.
Let’s face it: Venezuela is a semi-democracy. You could also call it a semi-authoritarian or hybrid regime. Therefore, the ruling establishment doesn’t play by the rules.
The South American nation has carried out 20 elections since 1998 with weak institutions and systematic repression, such as the case of opposition leader Leopoldo López, whose illegal imprisonment is not even supported by pro-Chavismo analysts like Mark Weisbrot.
Nevertheless, I believe the MUD’s great effort and the Venezuelan people’s civic duty should not be undermined. With some stealthy help from the army, ordinary citizens managed to twist the government’s arm through peaceful and democratic means.
José Velásquez is a Venezuelan geopolitical analyst at Venezuela Forecast. He gives conferences on political, legal, economic, and security issues pertaining to Venezuela. Follow @Venelytics.