Venezuela’s parliamentary election ||| Vincible

| CARACAS

A vote with momentous consequences

AS VENEZUELA prepares for a crucial election, state-controlled radio is playing a schmaltzy pop ballad called Invencible. It is a eulogy to the “invincible commander”, the late president, Hugo Chávez, sung by Daniela Cabello, a pop star who is the daughter of the powerful head of the National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello.

The message is clear. Chavismo, the populist movement founded by Chávez, never loses. It has won every election since 1998. Perhaps if he were still alive that record would continue when a parliamentary election is held on December 6th. One recent poll gave him a 58% approval rating.

But chavismo minus Chávez, and with the economic chaos he bequeathed, is now far from invincible. This time the opposition Democratic Unity (MUD) alliance is the favourite to win, and by a huge margin. Luis Vincente León, who accurately predicted the government’s unbroken string of electoral victories, says the question now is not whether the MUD will win but by how much.

That matters. Under the constitution, the powers of a majority in the National Assembly depend greatly on its size. If the MUD wins a simple majority it could irritate the executive branch by, for example, refusing to pass the annual budget or to approve the president’s foreign travel. A “supermajority” of more than two-thirds would give the opposition much greater power, for example to dismiss judges from the supreme court, which is controlled by the government and enables its authoritarian rule. With a voting block that big the MUD may feel strong enough to launch a referendum in 2016 to recall the unpopular president, Nicolás Maduro.

In a fair fight, the MUD might well win a supermajority. Millions of Venezuelans, suffering the worst recession in over 70 years and appalling levels of crime, want a change. But the government is making that hard. Pre-election rigging, with the collusion of the electoral authority, the CNE, has been blatant. In April it assigned extra representatives to districts where the government is strong. The ballot paper is confusing. The government has banned several opposition candidates on spurious grounds, including one of the MUD’s top leaders, Leopoldo López, who is in jail. The ruling United Socialist Party has narrowed the gap with the MUD in recent polls.

Mr Maduro has repeatedly threatened violent consequences if the opposition wins. His prediction seemed to come prematurely true when, at a packed rally in the state of Guárico on November 26th, Luis Manuel Díaz, a regional opposition leader, was shot dead. Lilian Tintori, Mr López’s wife, was on the same stage, close enough to be sprayed by Mr Díaz’s blood. She calls the murder “state terrorism”. The government says it was the work of gangsters; three men have been arrested.

Despite the fevered atmosphere, the election will not be well monitored. Whereas Chávez welcomed foreign observers (to give legitimacy to his near-certain victories), Mr Maduro says Venezuela “will not be monitored by anyone”. He refused an application by the Organisation of American States to send a mission. Luis Almagro, the organisation’s secretary-general, criticised preparations for the election in a detailed letter to the CNE. Mr Maduro’s response: Mr Almagro, a former foreign minister in Uruguay’s leftist government, is “garbage”. The only observation team allowed into the country is from the Union of South American Nations. Its remit is limited. Brazil, which is normally indulgent towards Venezuela’s leaders, pulled out of the mission when Venezuela rejected Nelson Jobim, a former president of Brazil’s supreme court, as its leader.

Whatever happens, the election will move Venezuela into uncharted territory. If the MUD falls short of a majority, its supporters may erupt in protest. If it wins a landslide victory, radicals could seek an immediate and potentially destabilising removal of the president. If, as seems likely, the MUD scores a narrow victory, will Mr Maduro consider dialogue? Or will he use repression to keep chavismo invincible?