How Venezuela Got Here and What’s Next: Q&A on the May 20 Election

(AP Photo/Fernando Llano)

On Sunday, May 20, Venezuela will hold elections for president, municipal councils, and state legislatures. Despite widespread dissatisfaction with his government and amid an unprecedented political and economic crisis that is causing waves of migrants and refugees to flee the country, it is almost certain that the incumbent, Nicolas Maduro, will be declared the winner of Sunday’s presidential vote. Ahead of the election, we’ve prepared a short Q&A explaining the current state of affairs, and how the country’s crisis could be affected moving forward.

Why is a Maduro victory almost certain, despite his unpopularity?

Maduro is expected to win Sunday due to two main factors: likely opposition abstention and the government’s willingness and capacity to manipulate the voting process and results to its own advantage. While the traditional opposition—namely  the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) coalition—has called for a boycott of the election, Henri Falcon of Avanzada Progresista and evangelical pastor Javier Bertucci have defied the opposition boycott and remained in the race. Falcon is leading in some polls, with a recent Datanalisis survey  giving him an 11-point lead over Maduro among likely and highly likely voters (39 percent to 28 percent), with Bertucci at 19 percent. However, a general sense of the inevitability of the results—on top of the MUD’s call for a boycott—are likely to fuel abstention among opposition voters.

By comparison, abstention will probably not be a problem for Maduro. The governing United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) is a well-oiled machine when it comes to mobilizing its base on election day, and it has cultivated the continued support of its 20 percent of the electorate by providing individual bonuses and semi-regular deliveries of subsidized food in CLAP boxes to as many as 6 million families. Additionally, the government has encouraged Venezuelans to receive these subsidies by registering for a Carnet de la Patria, an electronic ID card, which is tied to the PSUV’s voting machinery. On election days, the country’s estimated 2.8 million public sector workers are routinely told to register their Carnets at “puntos rojos” at voting centers, along with members of Chavista base organizations, to show that they have voted. There has been no clear evidence that the Carnet de la Patria violates ballot secrecy, but this practice has deliberately fueled that impression and generated fears that failure to vote for the government’s candidates will bring negative consequences.

What exactly are the complaints around electoral conditions on May 20?

The process has been stacked against the opposition from the start. In December 2017, the National Constituent Assembly (ANC) issued a decree that the three MUD parties which boycotted the December municipal elections—Voluntad Popular, Primero Justicia, and Accion Democratica—would have to be “renewed” by the National Electoral Council (CNE), a process by which parties have to present signatures from 0.5% of registered voters in 12 states. Voluntad Popular (the main figure of which, Leopoldo Lopez, has been barred from political participation and is being held under house arrest) refused to adhere to the ANC’s ruling, and Primero Justicia (which, again, saw its most recognized figure Henrique Capriles banned from holding office in April 2017) failed to gather the necessary signatures in time. This left Accion Democratica and Un Nuevo Tiempo as the only two parties able to participate out of the four main parties that make up the central decision-making bloc of the MUD, the “G4”. On top of that, a January 2018 Supreme Court ruling blocked the MUD from participating in the elections as an umbrella group, thus preventing the opposition coalition from presenting a unity candidate on the MUD ticket. As a result, when elections were set for April 22 in the wake of the collapse of talks in the Dominican Republic, the MUD announced a boycott in response to the above conditions.

On March 1, Falcon (alongside representatives of the smaller COPEI and MAS parties), announced he had reached an accord with the Maduro government to postpone the elections by one month, and that he would be participating because the accord guaranteed that the same audits that were in place for the December 2015 legislative elections (which the opposition won in a landslide) would be in place this time around as well. However, this accord has not been fully honored by the government. As the independent Venezuelan Electoral Observatory (OEV) notes, this vote has several significant shortcomings compared to 2015, including: the elimination of software audits used by the Sala de Sistema Información Electoral (SIE), which tracks turnout; the lack of indelible ink to mark voters’ fingers as a means of preventing multiple votes; and a rushed voter registration period that lasted only one month, compared to seven months in 2015.

The fact that electoral conditions fall short of the 2015 vote is important because, since then, there have been multiple credible allegations of electoral fraud carried out by the government. In the elections for representatives to the Constituent Assembly in July 2017, the election software company Smartmatic said that the government inflated turnout figures by at least one million votes. And in the October 2017 gubernatorial elections, poll witnesses were able to document how the vote tally in Bolivar state was manually altered to support the government candidate. Because of this, the prospect of tampering with the ballot box and manipulating the result cannot be ruled out, even if Maduro seems able to win due to abstention alone.

In the likely event that Maduro is declared the victor, what’s the outlook for Venezuela in the coming weeks and months?

In the highly likely event that President Nicolas Maduro is declared the winner on Sunday, his government seems unwilling or unable to make reforms needed to address the economic crisis. Analysts predict deepening scarcity of basic goods and medicine, with annual inflation for 2018 reaching anywhere from 13,000 to 30,000 percent. Politically, there appears to be no immediate prospect for negotiations between the government and opposition to resume. But international pressure in the form of withholding legitimacy or imposing additional sanctions will continue. With the exception of the U.S. debt sanctions, so far the international response has largely focused on targeted sanctions against Venezuelan officials accused of corruption or human rights abuses. The United States has also threatened to issue sanctions against the oil sector, however, which would have a devastating impact on the country. It would fuel the economic crisis, as well as accelerate the flow of migrants and refugees fleeing to elsewhere in the region.

As popular discontent with the crisis grows, the government will have to increasingly rely on repression—both of popular mobilization and of internal dissent within the ranks of the security forces and Chavismo—as a means to maintain power. In this context the Constituent Assembly’s (ANC) November 2017 “Law against Hate, for Peaceful Coexistence and Tolerance,” which gives the government broad powers to shutter media outlets or jail individuals for voicing dissent, is particularly worrisome. It will likely be used to continue the government’s strategy of isolating traditional opposition actors, just as authorities are sure to continue to crack down on discord within the security forces. The ANC has yet to present its new constitution, but when it does its unpopularity may prove a trigger for unrest, potentially leading to the same kinds of massive protests seen in mid-2017.

What is the state of play amid the Venezuelan opposition?

The reality is that Venezuela’s opposition is reeling, and in the midst of the worst crisis since its creation. The elections in the last several months have left the various member parties of the MUD deeply divided over the best path forward. The most dynamic aspect of the opposition’s response to being locked out of elections has been the creation of the Frente Amplio Venezuela Libre, or Broad Front for a Free Venezuela, which convened a major rally in the Universidad Central de Venezuela in early March that brought together the various opposition parties with student groups, NGOs, and academic institutions. The Frente Amplio even had some success in reaching out to dissident Chavistas, incorporating former Interior Minister Miguel Rodríguez Torres before his arrest on charges of sedition.

However, the Frente has so far failed to mobilize the larger Venezuelan population. It has convened a series of small-scale protests in Caracas and some other cities across the country, but these have failed to see the kind of mass participation in last year’s protests.

What if Falcon wins?

If Falcon somehow prevails and is acknowledged to have won, a host of new challenges would arise. Maduro’s term doesn’t end until January 10, 2019, meaning that it would begin a nine-month window in which there is a high potential for instability and uncertainty about a transition. The ANC has declared that it has powers over every branch of government, and will likely present a new constitution. Nothing has been made public about what this new constitution would contain, but there is a potential for it to include a radical reform of the structure of Venezuela’s government. The ANC could, for instance, change Venezuela’s system of government into a parliamentary system where the president has very little power, thus stripping Falcon of his influence and neutralizing the threat he represents to the Maduro government’s hold on power. Of course, this would also endanger Falcon’s promises to stabilize the economy and the exchange rate.

In addition, Falcon has insisted on the importance of fostering a kind of pacted transition. As we’ve pointed out on numerous occasions, this is likely the most realistic path out of Venezuela’s crisis, because this government is not likely to cede power without certain concessions. If this proposal moves forward it is likely to involve some kind of debate over transitional justice, like the one that neighboring Colombia has been grappling with since signing a peace accord with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).