Amid a deepening economic crisis and international criticism, Venezuelans go to the polls next month. The victors will win much more than the regional governorships for which they are competing.
Since former President Hugo Chávez was elected in 1998, in regional elections Venezuelans have voted as much for polarised visions of the future of their country as they have for specific candidates to take a particular public office. The options remain dichotomised: ‘chavismo’ (based on the politics of Chávez) vs ‘opposition’. This is despite the fact that the definition of these political identities is more contested than ever among sympathisers with either.
The ballot on 15 October will reproduce this polarised pattern at its crudest form. Most voters won’t be looking for candidates with technocratic profiles to efficiently run regional institutions, but for representatives who might keep political rivals (and their societal projects) at bay.
Most leaders of chavismo and the opposition know about this all too well. Their electoral prospects largely depend on keeping a disciplined, strategically-oriented campaign against that polarised background. Yet, once again, only the chavista bloc is showing a capacity to effectively keep that discipline.
When election time comes, chavista officials close ranks in order to optimise their chances. They rely on their main party (PSUV), to focus energies on selected candidates and openly avail themselves of coordinated institutional power in the articulation of their campaign: a political practice not invented by the PSUV, but nevertheless reproduced by this party. Chavismo won 20 out of 23 governorships in the past regional elections (2012), and all of them will institutionally oil the electoral machinery in support of PSUV candidates.
However, everyone knows, government included, that these factors cannot guarantee chavismo a national-level victory at this historical juncture. The 2015 parliamentary elections showed that, while most chavistas are firmly refusing to transfer their support and vote for opposition candidates, they are ready to show their discontent with poor government performance by staying home on ballot day. In 2015 the opposition bloc obtained a remarkable electoral victory, capturing 56 per cent of the national aggregate vote; chavismo got 40 per cent.
Since then, the economic crisis has worsened, prospects of short-term recovery are grim and anti-government street protests, some of them violent, mobilised significant numbers of opposition supporters between April and July this year. This scenario marks a golden opportunity for the opposition bloc, gathered around the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD), to regain institutional power and contest chavista hegemony. But it is unclear that their leaders will seize it, and indications are that they might repeat the Sisyphean pattern that characterises their trajectory.
Two unresolved problems atrophy the MUD, alienating a growing part of its support base and eroding its electoral potential: it lacks a unified or at least widely recognised leadership and it is split by what has become a marked fracture separating extremists from institutionalists.
The former refuse to accept institutional channels of collective action (including electoral competition) and advocate the ousting of current President Nicolás Maduro’s government by any means. The latter advocate a combination of institutional and extra-institutional collective action in advancement of MUD claims, and consider electoral competition as indispensable to both contest chavista hegemony and guarantee future political stability in Venezuela. They acknowledge that, whether they like it or not, there are millions of chavistas in the country who are not willing to accept a change of government by any means other than electoral.
The institutionalist faction constitutes an organic majority within the MUD, but it approaches the October election in a weak position. The faction hastened to formally register its parties before the Electoral Council in order to participate in the elections, but they are heavily burdened when it comes to competing effectively in those elections.
Firstly, the parties that constitute the MUD have quite an uneven organic presence throughout Venezuela, and this is a handicap in regional elections. But MUD also lacks effective political coordination, and competes with itself to impose candidates in the regional constituencies in which it does have an organic presence. This often generates schisms that divide the support base, as is already happening this year, and it erodes any electoral potential.
Secondly, it will be difficult for the opposition parties to mobilise significant sectors of their support, which is frustrated by the continuing oscillation of leaders who at first they ask to ‘remain in the streets’ until the government it ousted (as they did during the recent protests), and then next urge them to ‘come to the ballot box’ to regain presence in public institutions.
In this scenario, with many people within the support base of chavismo and the opposition demoralised and lacking trust in their leaders, what are the electoral prospects?
Participation levels will surely vary between constituencies as they always do in this type of election. In 2012, some regions drew nearly 70 per cent of their voters to the ballot, while others only mobilised 40 per cent. At an aggregate national level, we should not be surprised to see participation approaching numbers like these for this type of election.
This is due to the fact that, despite the ongoing economic crisis, the chavista bloc will capitalise on the political momentum gained by the inauguration of the Constituent Assembly, which it fully controls, and on the perception of political victory that emerged among supporters of this bloc once the street protests vanished.
The mobilisation of the opposition support base will be more difficult for parties in the MUD, but like chavistas, many among them will go to the ballot with the hope of keeping rivals away from institutional power: in this light, even a bad candidate is better than a chavista candidate. Opposition parties will place emphasis on campaigning in key, highly populated or strategic federal states such as Miranda, Zulia and Bolívar.
At any rate, the victors in this regional election will be winning much more than governorships and regional shares of institutional power, in themselves important in preparation for the 2018 Venezuela presidential elections. What is at stake is also a rating of chavismo and opposition leadership in light of their recent strategies: the street protests led by opposition members (and in practice boycotted by chavistas) versus the Constituent Assembly called by the government (and boycotted by the opposition). They will be electorally judged.
Luis Angosto-Ferrández is a senior lecturer at the University of Sydney. He is author of ‘Venezuela Reframed’ (2015) and editor of ‘Democracy, Revolution and Geopolitics in Latin America: Venezuela and the International Politics of Discontent’ (2014).
This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.