Can The Opposition Win a Majority in the National Assembly?

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Francisco Monaldi

[This is a translation of an article originally appearing in El Nacional]

In the 2010 legislative elections the pro-government alliance led by the United Socialist Party (PSUV) obtained 48% of the votes and won 59% of the seats in the assembly. Opposition coalition Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (MUD) obtained 47% of the votes and won 40% of the seats, while the Patria Para Todos (PPT) party won 3% of the votes and claimed 1% of the seats. Because the PPT had become part of the opposition but not of the MUD coalition, another way of reading those results would be that the opposition won 50% of the votes, but claimed only 41% of the seats in the Assembly.

At the time the discrepancy between votes obtained and deputies was generally attributed to the manipulation of electoral circuits or gerrymandering by the National Electoral Council (CNE), which was under the control of a pro-government majority. There is no doubt that this affected the opposition. In research Richard Obuchi, Alfredo Guerra and I carried out, we estimated that the manipulation cost the opposition 5 deputies which it could have obtained under the 2005 circuits. However, the rest of the difference, 9 seats that the opposition would have claimed under the traditional system of proportional representation, can be explained by two other factors. 1) The overrepresentation of the least populated states of the country, due to a Constitutional norm, which favors the government because, in general, Chavismo has more support in rural areas. Thus, in the scarcely populated state of Delta Amacuro a vote is worth almost 6 times more than in populous Zulia or Miranda states. 2) The electoral system was made openly majoritarian with the increase of the number of nominally elected deputies (elected by simple majority) and the elimination of the previous mixed proportional system, which compensated with deputies elected under the list system the “excess” in the number of nominal deputies obtained. At a time when it commanded a broad majority, the government stablished a system that overrepresented the majority party. The PSUV alliance claimed more deputies than the MUD opposition alliance, because it obtained more votes, and because the opposition was divided between the MUD and the PPT.

Today’s polls show a very different reality from 2010. In that year polls showed that the opposition had a slim majority over the government. Thus, it could be predicted that the combination of overrepresentation of rural areas, the manipulation of electoral circuits, and the fact the PPT leaders Guarulla and Falcón were not part of the MUD coalition, made probable a result in which the opposition could obtain a slight majority of votes, but still claim less deputies that the government, as it indeed happen. For the opposition to have claimed majority control of the National Assembly in 2010 it would have needed the MUD and the PPT to be allied and to win approximately 52% of the votes (5% more than the votes obtained by the MUD.)

But today’s polls show that the pro-government coalition is a clear minority. Voting intention for pro-government candidates is at around 30 to 33% -slightly higher that the president’s approval rate. These are levels similar to those reached by the opposition in 2005-2006, at the peak of the economic boom and of Chávez’s popularity. The MUD candidates now have a support of 55 to 59% of the voters, the rest say they would vote for independent candidates. This means that the support for the opposition almost doubles the support for Chavismo. If there is unity in the opposition, and it obtains more that 53% of the votes, it will claim the majority of the National Assembly –even if Chavismo wins a lot more than what the current polls are showing. If the opposition’s lead widens and it wins 58 to 60% of the votes, then it will claim a super-majority. Using the latest poll by Datanálisis, Francisco Rodríguez of Merrill Lynch reports that the opposition could win as many as 120 deputies of the total 167 of the National Assembly. With 59% of the votes the opposition could win 72% of the National Assembly. These projections include the recent announcements of changes in the number of deputies elected in some circuits because of changes in population estimates, which add two more deputies to the National Assembly. These changes have been clearly designed to harm the opposition, as journalist Eugenio Martínez has recently shown in an excellent piece. For example, the changes mean the elimination of one of the two deputies from the pro-opposition east side of Caracas, which is now added to the pro-government area of Valles del Tuy. This is a form of electoral manipulation that should be strongly condemned but that could, at the most, lead to a loss of one or two opposition deputies; a shameless abuse, but not enough to alter the correlation of forces. If there is opposition unity and if the opposition voters do not disproportionately abstain, the votes should be enough to put the National Assembly in control of the opposition, and there is even a relevant probability that the opposition could win a super-majority. The system of overrepresentation of the majority turns against Chavismo now that it has become a minority; gerrymandering will not be enough to change that. It is important to stress that it is not possible to exactly predict how a determinate number votes will result in a number of elected deputies because the distribution of votes among the different voting circuits is crucial for such predictions. However, projections like the one reported by Merrill Lynch, which assume that the opposition will grow uniformly, are likely not far off.

Of course, there is still a long time before the elections, the date for which incredibly, the CNE still has not announced, and the government still holds several tricks up its sleeve to avoid electoral disaster. For example we are again witnessing the manipulation of electoral circuits, but as I said before, it will not gain much through this. What other tricks could the government pull? The most predictable are the ones it has used in the past: 1) promote division within the opposition by stimulating a dissident opposition list, 2) promote voter’s abstention within the opposition by generating mistrust in the CNE and a climate of hopelessness among opposition voters, 3) attempt to regain support by a populist move such as the Dakazo, and 4) use fraudulent practices on election day, such as “ghost voters,” or absentees whose votes are added to the government’s tally at the end of the voting process in places where the opposition lacks election witnesses. But these are all strategies that can be counteracted by the opposition and that would not preclude the government’s defeat. At the most they could prevent the opposition from reaching a qualified majority. On the other hand the economic collapse could even mean worse results for the government than the ones predicted by polls. Indeed that would be the presumption in any “normal” country.

The forcefulness of this scenario lends plausibility to the idea that some radical elements in the government could push for the dangerous option of indefinite postponement of the elections or a massive electronic fraud. The costs of such options would be huge for the government: it would lose all internal and external legitimacy. A broad majority of Venezuelans, international observers and governments, believe the opposition will win because they know the pro-government forces are a clear minority. If a massive fraud were to happen, remaining support for the government would collapse. However the opposition needs to prepare for such scenarios, because it cannot assume that rationality will prevail, and therefore it must do what it can to increase the internal and external costs for the government if it chooses to cross the last line and become an open dictatorship.

Now, many will ask: what is the use of winning the National Assembly if the executive will probably strip it of all its powers? In Venezuela anything is possible, but that is another matter altogether, and as my friend Ibsen Martínez says, paraphrasing Jack the ripper, “let’s go by parts” (one step at a time).

Francisco Monaldi is visiting professor of political economy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

(Translated by Hugo Pérez Hernáiz)