Could the Opposition Lose Venezuela’s Legislative Elections?

Dimitris Pantoulas and David Smilde

Polls put the Venezuelan opposition in an enviable position for this year’s legislative elections.

The most recent numbers from Datanálisis, Venezuela’s most reliable pollster, show that the government has a 65.1% disapproval rating compared to a 27.4% approval rating. 45.8% say they plan to vote for opposition candidates. 25% say they plan to vote for PSUV candidates.

When this is recalculated using only likely voters and assigning the undecided vote, it becomes 59.2% for the opposition and 32.3% for the government. Projections made by Bank of America analysts suggest this could lead to an opposition super-majority of 120 seats compared to 38 for the government and 9 independents.

But the opposition movement has snatched defeat from the jaws of victory before.

In 2004 shortly before the CNE finally approved a referendum, serious pollsters had the opposition ahead by a large margin. Yet the opposition campaign languished and few months later Chavez defeated the recall referendum by a landslide.

In October 2013, the opposition was tied with the government in voter intention for the December municipal elections and presented them as a referendum on the mandate of President Maduro. But a populist measure that obliged electronics retailers to cut prices by three quarters captured the public’s attention and caught the opposition flat-footed. Left without a clear message, the opposition ended up loosing by a healthy margin.

Could the same thing happen this time around? Of course it is too early to predict the outcome of an election that does not yet even have a date. But here we will look at some factors that could work against an opposition victory.

Malapportionment and Opposition Strategy

While the opposition clearly dominates in national level polls this does not translate to winning legislative districts in a linear fashion. As has been documented by Monaldi, the district map has a rural bias that favors Chavismo.

The 1999 Constitution compensated the elimination of the Senate and move to unicameral legislature by ensuring that every state has three deputies regardless of size. Overall, in 2010, urban districts representing 11 millions voters elected 80 deputies, while rural districts representing 6.5 million voters elected 82 deputies. This variation of the ratio of voters to representatives is an arrangement referred to as malapportionment.

As it happens, Venezuela’s particular malapportionment favors Chavismo because it is strongest in rural areas. As a result the opposition will need approximately 54% of the vote to win a simple majority.

According to the MUD’s projections , a simple majority would require their candidates to win all of the districts Capriles won in April 2013, plus 11 additional districts in which Capriles received 46% or more and or the MUD won in the 2010 legislative elections (see table).

Most of these are urban districts in the interior where the opposition has some political power that can be used in mobilization. For example, the opposition controls the Mayor’s offices of Maracaibo and Maturin, and the governorship of Amazonas state.

A super majority might be more difficult since it would require them to win ten more districts, none of which they have ever won before

The government’s strategy, of course, is to scrape by in districts that could potentially swing.

Party Branding and Engagement

The MUD’s plan does not seem far-fetched provided they increase their 2013 percentages by five points or so. If the vote were today they would almost certainly achieve that.

But as Luis Vicente Leon recently argued, the opposition so far has risen in the polls not through its own strengths but through the weakness of the government. Over the past ten months they have largely been on the sidelines allowing the Maduro government to self-destruct. While this policy has gotten them to roughly 45% in voter intention, it is not clear they will be able to expand or even hold that margin once the electoral campaign begins in earnest.

The “brand”, or reputation of parties or political blocks can be decisive among undecided or “soft” voters and the opposition’s brand is “toxic” for many. Datanálisis’ most recent numbers show that approximately half the population disapproves of the opposition (49.2%), which is 7.7% points higher than their approval rating (41.5%). While this is much better than the government’s net rating (-37.7), it should be a disturbing number for them given that they need to gain at least 54% to ensure a legislative majority.

It suggests that opposition strength and Chavista weakness could be thin. If in the coming months the government were to make progress on some of the challenges it is confronting, and provide a focused and convincing message regarding its plans, it has the means of reaching people.

For example, through a concerted campaign of public service messages and statements the government has been able to increase the percentage of people who agree with an increase in the price of gasoline from 26.8% to 60.8% in the span of one month. Conceivably they could do the same thing to convince people of the need for currency devaluation. If they were able to convince people of the need for reform and successfully carry it out, they could leave the opposition without a message and reap electoral benefits.

The point here is that the Venezuelan populace can be engaged and the government is both good at it and has privileged access to the media. The opposition in contrast, is distinguished by the abstract nature of its message and diffuseness of its proposals. For example, the week before the 2013 municipal elections, an astounding 2/3rds of voters did not know the opposition’s positions on the key issues of the day such as shortages, inflation and crime. When it bothers to communicate at all, the opposition tends to focus on issues of liberty that rally its base but leave most of the population flat.

The difference in engagement can also be seen in current process of candidate selection. Primaries not only tend to pick candidates that are more closely adjusted to the preferences of voters rather than party power-brokers, they also mobilize this base and get them involved in the process.

The PSUV is running primaries for all districts with the requirement that half of the primary candidates need to be women and half need to be under 30 years old. In contrast the MUD is once again running primaries in only 33 districts out of 87, designating candidates for the others through negotiation between the parties. The entire state of Zulia, for example, will not have any primaries.

Party Articulation and Mobilization

Datanálisis’ most recent numbers showed that 39% of respondents self-identified as opposition, 22.9% as pro-government, 29.5% identify as “neither nor.” This represents a clear advantage for the opposition.

However, digging deeper the disadvantage dissipates somewhat. Party identification is virtually the same. While 20.5% identify with opposition parties, 19.9% identify with the PSUV. 52.9% identify with no party at all. This means that the opposition has a level of party articulation of 51.0% while the PSUV has a level of party articulation of 89.5%.

Put differently, while there are currently more voters that support the opposition than the government, government supporters are more likely to be articulated into the government party and that facilitates mobilization.

Of course these are still general dispositions and much will depend on the actual ground game of each side on Election Day.  As the Carter Center report on the 2013 elections mentioned, the opposition was benefited in that election by abstention in the Chavista camp, especially among minority parties of the Gran Polo Patriotico (GPP). They lost 23% of their vote compared to 2012 elections.

Indeed how well Chavismo fairs in the upcoming elections will depend in no small part on how well they mobilize minority parties in their coalition. The PSUV has not yet reached an agreement with the other GPP parties about their representation in the new AN. Failure to do so could increase abstention in the Chavista camp.

But judging on past performance Chavismo’s election-day mobilization machine is formidable. Chavismo controls the great majority of state and municipal governments and in Venezuela the latter are widely used for election-day mobilization on all sides of the political spectrum.

Opposition Abstention

MUD calculations suggest that to win a majority in the National Assembly they will need a level of abstention of less than 35%. In polls over 75% of opposition supporters suggest they will vote in the elections.

However, public perceptions of the credibility of the CNE have seriously declined since the 2013 presidential elections and opposition radicals are engaging in a concerted campaign promoting abstention. The hashtag #salvatuvoto is being used to discourage voting, and @civilmilitar provides a continual flow of supposed evidence demonstrating that elections are rigged (see for example here, here and here). So far it does not seem like this sentiment is widespread, but a few percentage points could make a difference in districts where the vote is close.

Increase in Oil Prices

The recent spike in oil prices gives the Venezuelan government some breathing room; prices reached a low of USD40 per barrel just two months ago and in recent weeks have surged to USD 57 per barrel. If they continue to climb the government could use the revenue to alleviate scarcities. A recent report by a local consulting firm shows that the Venezuelan government has increased state imports; the government gives priority to direct imports that can alleviate the scarcity of basic goods.

It is likely that distribution of the goods will take place in large open markets in the districts that the government has to win. The markets will be organized by the government with little private sector participation and goods will be sold at solidarity prices (almost free). This is a distribution practice that the government has used many times in the past.

US Sanctions

One final factor that could have an impact is a continued rollout of sanctions by the US government. The sanctions announced in February and March gave Nicolas Maduro a five-point bounce in the polls. This is likely to be ephemeral. But a progressive series of announcements expanding the list of sanction officials would likely produce a series of bounces that could buoy the government’s electoral effort and complicate the opposition’s plans.