By any measure, Sunday’s gubernatorial elections in Venezuela did not go well for the opposition. The regime of President Nicolás Maduro took 17 of a possible 23 seats, with, as of this writing, another still up for grabs. Marred by predictable irregularities and government manipulation, the MUD opposition coalition’s decision to participate failed to pay dividends. Whether they should continue to view the ballot box as a viable means of advancing their agenda is now up for debate; a change of course may be coming. To understand what steps the opposition may take, it’s worth looking at why they participated in the election in the first place – and what both sides had to lose, aside from governorships, in Sunday’s vote.
How did we get here?
The resounding defeat suffered by Maduro and his government in the Dec. 6, 2015 legislative election seemed to signal the end of the regime’s ability to hold power electorally. From that point on, Maduro began focusing attention on preventing, at any cost, the possibility of giving up more control through democratic means. The result was a systematic attack on citizens’ freedoms – not least through repression of sustained street protests from the opposition. In recent months, these events drew increased international attention and pressure to push forward with the elections, which had been on hold since 2016. When the elections were announced, the opposition defied some expectations – and recent historical precedent – by announcing that they would participate. The decision divided opposition voters, some of whom anticipated the changing nature of their electoral prospects.
The opposition’s gamble
Maduro’s rock bottom approval ratings seem to suggest that the electoral arena is where his government is most vulnerable. The Venezuelan opposition coalition recognized a huge opportunity to take more power away from those in charge if they could get control of more governorships. Governors manage financial resources, are in charge of local operational infrastructure, and hundreds of jobs depend on them both directly and indirectly. Local control would help tip the strategic balance in favor of those who, ultimately, seek to remove Maduro from office.
The government’s gamble
The Maduro government’s calculation, by contrast, was that the elections could give them some room to maneuver both at home and abroad. “Winning” for Maduro meant legitimacy amid international scrutiny and criticism that the government was disregarding the majority that opposes it. Even capturing half of the contested governorships would have been positive for the regime, as it would allow them to convey an image of a country with an equilibrium of forces. For the opposition, a 50-50 split on Sunday would have been a heavy blow; the government’s overwhelming victory could be life-threatening.
How Maduro won
The government had no chance of earning new supporters, which is why its electoral strategy was based on getting its core supporters in the street while discouraging its opponents from voting. The ruling party relied on the image of its gubernatorial candidates and of the late former President Hugo Chávez, at all times avoiding any mention of Maduro. It also worked to convince supporters who depend on state welfare and employment programs that those programs could end if opposition governors were to take control.
To discourage opposition voters from coming to the polls, the government resorted to manipulation, trickery and intimidation. They first moved forward the elections by two months in order to take advantage of the confusion that more than 90 days of intense street protests had created on both sides. The inauguration in August of the Constituent Assembly, a legislative body created by Maduro to supersede the opposition-controlled National Assembly, had similarly disoriented the opposition. Moving the election forward gave the MUD little time to coordinate internally and build an adequate structure to monitor the elections at the national level.
Official discourse also sought to minimize perceptions that the elections would have any tangible effect on power in the country – essentially convincing opponents that voting wasn’t worth the trouble. Other barriers were put in place, such as preventing candidate’s names from being updated on ballots, the closing of voting stations in places that tend to favor the opposition, and the resulting relocation of voters to places that were hard to reach.
What happens next?
The government game plan was effective: Voters were swayed by the official message that these elections were not particularly important, and the obstacles put in place to discourage them from voting were thus enough to keep opposition voters at home. A clear sign of this is that turnout in opposition districts was far below the national average. What’s more, many low-income voters, convinced that any state governor who was elected would have no real impact on national economics, opted for the candidate they felt most likely to meet their immediate needs.
What remains for the opposition? Official complaints against the regime are in the works, but it is unlikely they will be successful in proving fraud through official means. It remains important – especially in the international arena – that the MUD make clear the degree to which the results of Sunday’s vote were manipulated.
But any belief that the opposition had of quickly and democratically taking power from the regime is gone. Sunday’s results were a moral blow to potential opposition voters, and will erode their faith in opposition leadership. The regime’s ability to withstand international pressure thus far suggests that the opposition needs to change its approach.
Maduro may seize on Sunday’s results and opposition voters sense of dejection to push quickly for municipal elections. This would give them, potentially, four years of ostensibly legitimate hold over some 300 municipalities throughout the country. Presidential elections are also due next year. The government will keep working to create an environment that allows them to hold elections without any risk of losing. The opposition has a fine line to walk if they hope to avoid getting trapped in an electoral dead-end.
If Maduro does try his hand at another election, the opposition will face a stark decision whether to participate, as it seems evident that the government has found new ways to win despite its supporters being a minority. Sunday may in fact signify the end of the MUD as it is currently imagined – or at least an end to electoral politics as its primary arena going forward. The opposition’s gamble of trusting in the power of elections must now make room for the fact that the last vestiges of democracy in Venezuela are slipping away.
Seijas Rodríguez, Ph.D., is a Venezuelan political analyst and statistician. He is the director of the Delphos poll.