Venezuela holds another flawed election

Oct 19th 2017Screen Shot 2017-10-19 at 12.21.10

The opposition is directionless and demoralised

THIS only happens in Venezuela, boasted Nicolás Maduro as the electoral commission declared the results of a long-delayed regional election on October 15th. For once, the country’s president (pictured, with moustache) may have been right. In the midst of an economic calamity largely of his own making, with opinion polls showing support among Venezuelans for his government at less than 30%, his United Socialist Party (PSUV) won 18 out of 23 governorships and more than half the national vote.

Neither Venezuelans nor the world will swallow this fiction, declared Gerardo Blyde, the campaign director of the opposition Democratic Unity coalition (MUD). The electoral commission, which takes its orders from Mr Maduro’s regime, has published fiction before, most recently in July, when it claimed that more than 8m people voted to select members of a constituent assembly, a sham parliament designed to bypass the opposition-controlled national assembly. The commission exaggerated the turnout by at least 1m people.

The MUD, a coalition of parties formed in 2008 to oppose chavismo, the movement founded by Mr Maduro’s late predecessor, Hugo Chávez, boycotted that vote. The fraudulent exercise provoked widespread international condemnation and the imposition of sanctions by the United States on Mr Maduro and other officials.

Few people outside the regime think that this month’s gubernatorial vote was fair. Outright rigging may have contributed to the unexpected result, but it is unclear how much of that there was. Other factors also played a part. They include divisions within the MUD and exhaustion among ordinary people after months of protests this year in which at least 125 people died. The government also capitalised on its superior get-out-the-vote operation. The outcome has put a spring in Mr Maduro’s step and leaves the opposition feeling directionless and demoralised.

The MUD was uncertain whether to take part in the election, which should have been held last year. Smaller parties argued against, saying the vote would legitimise Mr Maduro’s dictatorial rule. They were overruled by the majority, which reckoned that they would either win a lot of governorships or have further grounds for attacking the regime as undemocratic.

But the opposition won neither a real victory nor a clear-cut moral one. It had a hard time rallying its supporters. There was a low enthusiasm inside the opposition grass-roots for these elections, says Félix Seijas, a statistician at the Central University of Venezuela. Depressed after four months of fruitless protest, they never saw the link between the regional elections and the bigger game.

The regime did all it could to keep them home. It shifted the locations of polling stations in anti-government strongholds days before the election. It sowed confusion by leaving on the ballots the names of some opposition candidates who had lost in primary contests. At the same time, the government bullied people to back the PSUV. It sent text messages to state workers telling them where to vote and for whom. In a least one state, Vargas, subsidised food parcels were placed outside a polling station on election day. At a time of food shortages and inflation of 700%, these would have been hard to resist, especially for poorer voters, who are more likely to support the government.

Turnout was just over 61%; PSUV candidates got 54% of the votes. To achieve that result without ballot stuffing, nearly all of the government’s supporters would have had to vote, says Mr Seijas. That, he thinks, is improbable.

The MUD is rattled. While Mr Maduro celebrated Venezuela’s record-breaking democracy, confusion reigned at opposition headquarters in Caracas. Leaders at first responded to the results with stunned silence, then conferred for more than an hour. They emerged to say that the MUD would not recognise the results; they did not make specific allegations of fraud. Their wobbly reaction is dumbfounding, says David Smilde of the Washington Office on Latin America, a think-tank. How is it possible they didn’t consider various scenarios and have a plan?

Splits within the MUD have widened. Successful candidates, including the governors-elect of Táchira and oil-producing Zulia, regions on the border with Colombia, recognised their own results, though they refused to be sworn in before the constituent assembly. So did Henri Falcón, the governor of Lara, who lost his seat. We lost and we have to accept it, he said.

Encouraged by the regional vote, Mr Maduro may go ahead with a presidential election, which is due by the end of 2018. Some analysts think the chavistas will find a more popular candidate to replace him, lessening the need for electoral thievery. Hector Rodríguez, a youthful confidant of the president who won the governorship of Miranda state, is one possibility.

Whoever it is, the chavista candidate may run unopposed. The MUD has suggested that it will not participate in another election unless the electoral commission is made independent. It would have trouble choosing a standard-bearer. The most popular opposition leader, Leopoldo López, is under house arrest after spending more than three years in prison. Henrique Capriles, the former governor of Miranda, who almost defeated Mr Maduro in the presidential election of 2013, has been charged with obscure budget-related misdemeanours and barred from seeking office for 15 years.

Many Venezuelans are fed up with politics. Emigration by the middle class has soared. Colombia says that monthly net migration from Venezuela more than doubled to 56,000 from June to August. Sabine Rodríguez, a medical student, queued for hours to vote in the election but with little sense that it had much point. I think this country is lost, she said.