The Venezuelan opposition’s decision to not participate in the December 10 municipal elections, will be counter-productive and fruitless. As with previous decisions to boycott elections, it will leave them excluded from political power and resources, with no apparent gain, and thereby help Nicolás Maduro steady his unstable political regime.
Studies show that with few exceptions, electoral boycotts have disastrous short and medium term consequences for the boycotting party. They deprive it of significant resources and most of the time entrench the ruling leader or party.
In the Venezuelan case, it is clear that the decision to boycott the municipal elections is a desperate reaction to the disastrous October 15 electoral result and not part of a clear strategy. The opposition coalition, plagued with coordination and other internal problems, appears to be trying to move Venezuela’s political battle from the national to the international level, calling attention in order to trigger further international sanctions against the Maduro government.
However, this is a small achievement, as Venezuela already has international attention. What is more, “history has demonstrated that the international cavalry is rarely willing or able to ride over the hill and save them.”
It might seem naïve to argue for participation. But even in the case that the unfair conditions mean you cannot win everything you deserve, any victory provides resources and complicates the adversaries’ strategy.
We will see the impact of the opposition boycott decision on three different levels. First it will offer more institutionalized power to Maduro; second it will destabilize and demoralize the opposition’s local bases; and third it will put in motion abstentionism as the leading opposition strategy, which will be difficult to change.
I) Losing control of important municipalities.
According to the Venezuelan Constitution, “municipalities constitute the primary political unit in the organization of the nation, ” and have a series of administrative competencies, including the ability to generate revenue through direct taxation (art.168, 179). Thus, the control of the municipalities means control of vital resources and outlets for patronage.
Municipalities can also have police forces with considerable discretion regarding how to police protests.The Venezuelan opposition currently controls the most affluent municipalities in the country, which is where most of the demonstrations against the Maduro’s government took place in 2017. Thus, without means of patronage, the opposition will be forced to rely on popular discontent but with limited space to assemble and protest.
Worse yet, municipal governments are vital for mobilization in presidential elections. As the reports of electoral observers show, Chavista authorities are not the only ones to use government resources to get out the vote, oppositional controlled local governments have done so as well, albeit on a smaller scale.
II) Weakening grass roots local political organization.
National level leaders of political parties took the decision to boycott the elections. But in many cases, opposition parties’ local leaders expressed their disagreement and decided to run for office as independent or with the support of smaller regional parties or neighborhood and civil associations. Thus it will be a “partial boycott,” simply reflecting the lack of coordination and persuasion between national and local level organizations, which will reduce the impact of the boycott.
The opposition’s absence from local politics for the following years will mean that emerging local leaders will lose the opportunity to gain practical experience such as the process of budgeting and resolving everyday problems which will in turn reduce their ability to build strong ties with local communities.
Lastly, leaders that have only local ambitions may feel demotivated to mobilize oppositional voters in the upcoming national elections. Hugo Chávez paid dearly for his decision to not include the elimination of term limits for sub-national posts during the 2007 Constitutional Reform referendum. Chavista local leaders did not make any effort to mobilize voters, leading Chávez to his only significant electoral defeat.
III) Abstentionist path dependency.
Boycotting next month’s municipal elections will also create momentum for boycotting the upcoming presidential elections which will be difficult to turn around. National oppositional leaders argue that they will not participate in the municipal election in order to press the government to improve electoral conditions for the upcoming presidential elections (especially to change the CNE’s constitution with less partisan members).
But in the very likely case that the government does not change the electoral conditions, the opposition will have a hard time explaining why it plans to participate in the 2018 presidential elections. Indeed it is not clear what motivation the government would possibly have to change conditions if keeping them the same will present the opposition with another strategic dilemma.
Boycotting the presidential elections of 2018 means that President Maduro with popularity of 20-30% could govern until 2025.
Coordination and Strategic Dilemmas for the Opposition
The decision to boycott elections inside an authoritarian regime is a strategic one and should be determined by four factors.
- Objective electoral conditions (how is the playing field),
- Oppositional electoral power (their real chances to win the election in free and fair conditions),
- The impact that the boycott will have to the incumbent in the national and international level and finally
- The opposition coalition’s internal conditions and configurations.
Electoral conditions have significantly deteriorated in the past year, especially after the illegitimate and controversial ANC vote on July 30. But on October 15, the opposition was able to win where they clearly got the most votes, such as happened this time in Táchira, Mérida, Zulia and Anzoategui.
At this point, the impact that the boycott will have on government legitimacy inside and outside the country is minimal. After the deadly manifestations of the previous period, no one in the world doubts the authoritarian tendencies of the Maduro government and the international community has already taken a harsh stance against it.
People who identify as government opponents continue to be the majority. But the opposition coalition of parties’ lack of coordination, continued ambivalence about elections, and lack of clear strategy have alienated some voters and simply failed to mobilize others. Thus, the actual decision to boycott the upcoming elections responds more to the opposition’s internal problems and power clashes than to the other three factors.
The differences between the various fractions within and across opposition parties are one of the most significant challenges for opposition’s coordination and future strategy. Opposition parties are weakened by their inability to form a coherent coalition with a unified leadership that will overcome problems of coordination and collective action. Their divisions result from real differences in their expected benefits from regime change, their willingness to engage in violence or not, and their respective presidential ambitions.
The government cunningly plays on these difference, with institutional rules that make coordination unlikely, such as by calling snap elections or postponing others or rewarding some opposition elites that ‘dialogue’ with it, while punishing others that can become a real threat to the regime’s survival.
In addition, the fact that the Venezuelan political parties, especially those of the opposition, are poorly-institutionalized and lack professionalism, puts them in poor position to respond. The main opposition actors tend to improvise their responses, without any clear medium or long-term strategy, creating a continual series of crises, marked by in-fighting and finger-pointing.