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Venezuela: Election or Autocratic Consolidation?

13 Mar 2018
By Raul Sanchez Urribarri

Venezuela’s presidential election will be held in May. But, far from gauging the electorate’s opinion of Nicolás Maduro’s controversial leadership, the poll may instead turn out to be a useful tool for the increasingly autocratic government.

Venezuela is in uncharted waters. It is facing an ever-worsening economic crisis, deteriorating conditions and a resulting exodus of its population to neighbouring countries. And there is now a presidential election taking place on 20 May 2018.

The opposition unity movement, MUD, along with most opposition parties, has denounced the election as a farce, with only one major politician—ex-Governor Henri Falcón—now running against Nicolás Maduro. Yet, this election is not designed to select a president. It is designed to consolidate Maduro’s autocracy. Maduro’s consolidation as leader refers to the entrenching of the ruling coalition: specifically, its control over key financial and human resources and its influence over the population in a way that eliminates a reasonable, foreseeable opportunity of regime change.

Venezuela’s transition to dictatorship did not take place overnight: it was the result of a protracted process that changed Venezuela’s state-society relations and the configuration of power over the course of almost two decades. However, until 2017, the basic expectation was that there would eventually be a moment when Maduro had to re-legitimise his power in a competitive election. The collapse of a dialogue hosted by the Dominican Republic earlier this year and the regime’s final refusal of a free and fair presidential election put an end to that expectation.

What purposes does the presidential election seek, other than re-electing Maduro?

Elections in authoritarian regimes are often more than window-dressing: They perform key functions to keep the reigning elite in power, establishing the required guidelines to institutionalise its rule and create new political routines that elites and the broader society must adapt to. They help reassert the relevance of the leader facing potential competitors within the movement. The leader uses the election, then, as a juncture to define who continues in the coalition (the ‘ins’) and who doesn’t (the ‘outs’).

Recent rifts between the madurismo and former sacred cows like ex-Minister and ex-President of Venezuela’s oil company, PDVSA, Rafael Ramirez, show the kind of coalition rearranging moves that can be less costly during election time. The creation of a new government party apart from the United Socialist Party (PSUV), called Somos Venezuela, is the most obvious sign that this election will be used to sort out the ‘ins’ from the ‘outs’.

Elections can also divide and disempower the opposition, a central regime goal. The fight over whether or not to participate has deepened divisions between opposition partisans and their leaders, a phenomenon particularly visible in the Twittersphere. The dialogue process deepened the rift and played into the slow-motion implosion of the MUD.

We have also witnessed how the process of regaining ballot access led to the gradual purging of many opposition parties—including the MUD—leaving a handful of opposition parties on the ballot. This was a deliberate attempt to encourage an opposition leader to run, which has now succeeded in the form of Governor Falcon’s bid referred above. This seeks to bring legitimacy to the election and help cement the existence of a regime-pliant, collaborationist party or group of parties.

Elections also seek to restore legitimacy, domestically and abroad. At the domestic level, it is still unclear how legitimate this election will be. To a large degree, this will be a function of how many people go to the polls. A large number of Venezuelans see this contest as the elecciones de la dictadura (elections of a dictatorship), but old habits die hard. Venezuelans are used to voting and might feel that not voting goes against their civic duties. Even many hardline oppositionists will not accept that by participating in the election they will bolster the democratic credentials of the government. Some might think it possible to participate, vote, and still protest against the regime.

On the other hand, the government needs to reinforce its international legitimacy to lift existing sanctions. This is a regime in dire need of entering into credible commitments with potential financial interests, business partners and investors. The election might just be the way to help restore Maduro’s mandate and work around thes two major setbacks.

Additionally, the election can (and will) be used as a ploy to perfect and exercise social control. The government has been developing the carnet de la patria (identification card) as a mechanism to ensure political support in exchange for benefits. This political extortion is morally repulsive yet very effective. According to some commentators, it is one of the key reasons why so many people voted for the PSUV in the last election. This might also explain why Maduro has become more popular in recent polls, during a worsening crisis. Perfecting this extortion mechanism might be seen as essential to consolidate party hegemony and turn voting into a ritual of loyal support to the ruling party.

Elections in autocratic regimes also help detect specific locations or communities where votes fall short of expectations, which can be used by the government to detect failures in the distribution of food and other benefits, or under-performing politicians. Thus, they also provide valuable information to enhance authoritarian governance.

In any case, it is important to bear in mind that elections in Venezuela are no longer a democratic fiesta. An abusive military, or even the presence of para-police forces, can help to create an atmosphere of fear and hopelessness to dissuade opposition voters from showing up or force former pro-government voters to go to the polls. The extent to which this will affect the election and its definitive result is unclear, but it is a major issue.

Therefore, it is a mistake to think that these elections are just a sham. Understanding why and to what extent they are meaningful for this unstable autocracy is critical in order to make sense of Maduro’s decisions and Venezuela’s prospective course.

Dr Raul Sanchez Urribarri is a lecturer in crime, justice and legal studies at the Department of Social Inquiry, La Trobe University. His scholarly work focuses on democracy, rule of law and comparative judicial politics.

This is an updated version of an earlier article published on 18 February on Caracas Chronicles. It is republished and edited by the author. 

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.