( Venezuela’s High-Stakes Legislative Elections: The December 6 Vote and What Comes Next | Washington Office on Latin America)

Above is the full video of the joing WOLA-Brookings event on Monday in Washington DC. Below are my comments in written form.

Poll Numbers Reveal Trouble for Chavismo

David Smilde

I’d like to start by thanking John and Harold for organizing this joint WOLA-Brookings event and all of you for turning out.

I am going to start by looking at some poll numbers from Datanalisis, Venezuela’s most reliable pollster. These numbers are from the end of September. In Venezuela there are not daily tracking polls like in the US. They tend to be monthly and several weeks behind.

The numbers are absolutely brutal for the government.

Datanalisis’ estimate based on likely voters is that, if the elections were tomorrow, 63% of respondents would vote for the opposition, 32% would vote for pro-government candidates and 5% for independents. In other words, the opposition would win the elections by 30 points and almost duplicate the pro-government vote.

Digging further into the poll it is not hard to see why.  Maduro’s job approval is 21.5% and job disapproval is at 76.6%. It is important to remember that in recent elections presidential job approval has been the closest indicator of electoral results, even in regional elections.

Indeed,  a majority of ALL socio-economic sectors disapprove of Maduro’s job performance. 90% of the population have a negative view of the current situation. 19% of government supporters also disapprove of Maduro’s job performance.

Of the top five problems people identify, four are economic problems—such as inflation, scarcities and unemployment–and these are problems the government pays for politically. 87% of respondents say the scarcities have been bad in the places where they shop.

And people themselves see Maduro in trouble. 75% of the population see the Maduro government as unstable. An incredible 67% of the population thinks Maduro should not finish his term.

These are the worst numbers Maduro, indeed Chavismo, has ever seen.

Interestingly, the unpopularity of the government is benefitting the opposition by default. As in previous elections, the opposition campaign has been abstract and content free. There has actually been very little campaigning of any kind.

Indeed, two thirds of respondents do not know what they propose to do about inflation and unemployment, and almost two thirds do not know what they propose to do about shortages and crime.

This is something that I have criticized the opposition for in the past. I think it was a key reason they fared so poorly in the 2013 municipal elections. That time, two years ago,  government put forward a populist policy action known as the Dakazo, in which they forced electronics retailers to lower their prices. The opposition was caught flat footed and without a message and the government won those elections by ten percentage points.

However, this time around this lack of message might actually work because the government is even worse.

Three QUARTERS of the population do not know what the government proposes to do about inflation and unemployment and OVER two thirds do not know what they propose to do about shortages and crime.

Another clever question Datanalisis asks respondents is whether they think political parties and leaders are accompanying the people in their problems, or just out to win elections.

42.4% of respondents think the opposition is accompanying the population in their problems versus 44.5% who think they are just out to win the election. In contrast, only 29% suggest that Chavismo is accompanying the population in their problems versus 54% think it is just out to win an election.

This is in contrast to 3 years ago when HCF was reelected when it was the opposition that had a 15 point deficit on this question.

Thus the opposition’s strategy of having a minimalist campaign seems to be working, this time around. Like a presidential candidate who is ahead and refuses to debate, they have more to lose than gain by campaigning since the government is doing such a good job of making them appear attractive. I am not even sure this is a conscious strategy or just the necessary consequence of their internal divisions and the sort of detante they have constructed between competing factions.

But it does seem to be working this time around.

45% of the population now says it identifies with the opposition while 22.4% identify with Chavismo. This can be compared to 26.7% and 38.7% before the December 2013 elections and 29% versus 25% before the September 2010 legislative elections.

I should also say that this is not a strategy I admire. I think all of these numbers point to a crisis of representation in Venezuelan democracy. And I also think this is a somewhat risky strategy, if there is any last minute surprise they could again get caught flat-footed like they did in 2013.

Indeed there are some numbers that suggest the government will outperform that 32% I mentioned and the opposition will underperform.

While twice as many people now identify with the opposition as identify with the government, in actual party identification there is a virtual tie. 21% suggest they identify with an opposition party. 19.4% suggest they identify with the PSUV.

This is still quite different from previous election in which the government had a clear advantage In November 2013 32.1% identified with the PSUV while only 18% identified with an opposition party.

It does mean, however, that the PSUV brings together 86.6% of those who support the government while the MUD brings together less than half (47.3%) of those who support the opposition. This suggests the government will have a relative advantage over the opposition in terms of mobilization, especially if you add to this the use of official insitutions and resources such as vehicles and employees on election day. This mobilization advantage suggests that the actual gap between the opposition and government will be less than the 30% suggested by the Datanalisis poll.

Nevertheless, the gap is so large that it really seems insurmountable for the government.

It’s worth asking why this is happening We are now less than a month away from the elections and at this point the government does not seem able to turn it around. The numbers I have just reviewed are from from the end of September. I just saw Datanálisis’ October numbers and there are no significant changes, if anything they are slightly worse.

The government seems unable to change course or really put forward the big October or November surprise that many of us thought would happen, such as the dakazo in 2013 that turned around their numbers.

We tend to think of political parties and governments as a big rational actors. But in fact they are collectivities of rational actors which commonly lead to collectively irrational outcomes. Add to this the discourses, implicit understandings and power dynamics common to institutions, and it is common for situations to emerge that make it irrational or even unthinkable for individuals to make collectively rational decisions.

It is these processes that lead sociologists to suggest that organizations rarely adapt successfully to new contexts. More often they are replaced by new organizations unencumbered by inertia. This is why 20 years ago Wal-Mart overtook K-Mart despite the latter’s huge resource advantage. More specifically to the Venezuelan case, this is why Accion Democratica drove itself off a cliff in the 1990s. In 1998 it confronted Chavez’s outsider challenge by nominating as its presidential candidate, party president Luis Alfaro Ucero, despite popularity in the single digits.

Maduro’s only real claim to leadership is the fact that Chavez designated him as successor. If he were to significantly deviate from what people in his coalition and in the population identify as Chavez’s policies—ample state spending and an fixed and overvalued currency—some would undoubtedly accuse him of betraying Chavez’s legacy. He simply does not have the autonomous leadership needed for a significant change in course.  

At this point it also seems like he does not have enough power in his government to really pull off any significant government action. Even closing the border with Colombia has been difficult to hold. Journalists who have been there tell me that already the closed border is becoming pourous with contraband flowing at night.

The government’s inability to turn its poll numbers around has led many to speculate that the elections will be postponed or the results thrown. However, it should be pointed out that there is no evidence of that. To the contrary, there is evidence that the government seems to be preparing to lose the AN.

Last month 13 Supreme Court justices who were supposed to retire in 2016 were given early retirement, presumably so that the AN can name new judges before January.

This past week the National Assembly passed a resolution asking the Executive to file suit against Venezuela’s autonomous universities which are currently on strike and review their finances. It is likely that if the government loses the National Assembly, we will see a push for control of these universities, the only remaining part of the public sector that is not dominated by the PSUV.

I think it also likely we will see a significant Enabling Law that will give Maduro power to decree laws for 12 or 18 months.

I should also point out that despite the refusal of the CNE to allow substantial international observation, its relationship with domestic observers has actually improved. They have been granted almost twice as many credentials as they had 3 years ago, which improves their capacity. They have also responded to opposition demands to tighten up the criteria for no-matches and institute an automatic post-electoral audit of the fingerprint machines. This is important because it constituted the most credible of the opposition’s complaints after the contested 2013 presidential elections.

This attitude makes sense. The government’s  national and international legitimacy is strongly dependent on their having come to and maintained power through credible elections. Any obvious attempt at fraud would cause them serious problems nationally and internationally.

Furthermore, the government will still control 4 out of 5 branches of the national government.

This is not an ideal or even a good situation for them. However, this election does not mean an immediate end to Chavsmo, as some seem to think.

It will mean, however, a new playing field, new terms of conflict and a strengthened hand for the opposition.

Thank you.