Venezuela’s legislative elections Muddled, yet united

Screen Shot 2015-10-01 at 7.48.47 PMOct 3rd 2015 | CARACAS

Voters are eager for an end to chavismoScreen Shot 2015-10-01 at 7.42.21 PM

Can a disciplined but diverse opposition coalition deliver it?

SOME of its leaders are in jail. Others are banned from running for office. All are up against an autocratic government with formidable resources. Yet in legislative elections scheduled for December 6th, Venezuela’s opposition has its best chance of winning a national victory since 1998, when the late Hugo Chávez, a charismatic populist, began his career of authoritarian misrule. The public is enraged by shortages of everything from poultry to pharmaceuticals, by inflation approaching 200% and by rampant corruption and crime. Recent polls find that 70% of respondents expressing a preference will vote for opponents of the Socialist government led by Nicolás Maduro, Chávez’s hand-picked successor.

The prospective winner, the Democratic Unity (MUD) alliance, is a political mish-mash. Formed in 2008, it houses ideologies from Marxism to free-market conservatism, united only by a shared loathing of the government. The MUD’s most prominent leaders are Leopoldo López, a former mayor who was sentenced last month to nearly 14 years in prison on trumped-up charges of inciting violence, and Henrique Capriles, a state governor and former presidential candidate. Its electoral programme consists primarily of the incontestable, but deliberately vague, proposition that Venezuela “wants change”.

Government supporters say the MUD’s unity is an act. Both Mr Capriles and Mr López, they jeer, are playboy politicians who know nothing of the barrios. Were the coalition to take power, chavistas warn, Venezuela would return to the sclerotic, elite-dominated “fourth republic” that preceded Chávez’s “Bolivarian revolution”.

The evidence for this caricature is flimsy—particularly in the case of Mr Capriles, the popular governor of Miranda state, who nearly beat Mr Maduro in the 2013 election. The alliance has demonstrated impressive flexibility and stoic discipline in the lead-up to the election. It has persuaded its members to bury their differences and field a single opposition candidate for each seat. The government-controlled electoral commission sought to trip up the coalition by insisting that at least 40% of legislative candidates should be women, shortly after the MUD submitted a list that fell well short of that. The alliance responded by laboriously compiling a new slate that complied with the rules.

A stronger criticism of the coalition is that it would rather stay in opposition than govern. It has yet to offer a manifesto for reform of Venezuela’s dysfunctional economy or hollowed-out state institutions. Its candidates defend their lack of concrete proposals by stressing that they are battling a system. Only once voters have reinstated a normal democracy, argues Julio Borges, a co-founder of Mr Capriles’s party, can a genuine policy debate begin.

Since the one indisputable achievement of chavismo is its unblemished record in presidential and legislative elections, Luis Vicente León, a pollster, believes that losing the National Assembly—even by a single seat—would devastate the Socialists by shattering their illusion of invincibility. But the opposition’s relative popularity is no guarantee that it will take over the chamber. Thanks to Venezuela’s complex semi-proportional electoral system, compounded by flagrant gerrymandering under both Chávez and Mr Maduro, the MUD will need far more than a simple majority of votes to win control. Nonetheless, if the polls hold up and prove accurate, then in the absence of any electoral fraud the alliance’s current lead of over 20 percentage points should prove sufficient. Even without the two-thirds minimum for constitutional changes, a majority could enable the opposition to schedule a recall referendum against Mr Maduro next year.

Optimists like Mr Borges hope that losing the legislature will lead moderate chavistas to oust the president and start cleaning up the mess that their movement’s namesake left behind. This rosy scenario appeals to many MUD members, who are wary of bearing the political cost of the inevitably painful adjustments to come.

But that would require Mr Maduro’s exit, and no one knows how far he will go to prevent a MUD victory. In June he said it would produce “chaos because our people would not surrender…I would be the first to throw myself onto the streets”. The easiest ploy would be to use the government’s dwindling cash reserves to reduce shortages: rumours abound of ships laden with goods steaming towards Caracas. Another time-honoured trick would be to devise new justifications for disqualifying MUD candidates. If that fails, a last-ditch tactic might be to delay the vote, under the pretext of a manufactured crisis like Venezuela’s border disputes with Colombia or Guyana. Even if the coalition does prevail, it could take street protests and foreign pressure to make Mr Maduro relent.