The victory of Nicolás Maduro’s governing coalition in provincial elections on Oct. 15 marked a turning point for Venezuela’s opposition. The government proved it had a winning formula to keep its opponents’ electoral prospects in check – through trickery, repression and coercion – despite Maduro’s limited support among the population. The MUD opposition coalition, by contrast, was quickly thrust into the most severe crisis of its near 10-year existence.
Municipal elections on Sunday will offer a first look at what both sides will do next.
The results are not in doubt. Indeed, the government already has many of the 335 mayor’s races in hand, as most MUD members have decided to boycott, citing the irregularities, rule changes and barred candidates that helped Maduro’s PSUV and its allies take 18 of 23 gubernatorial seats last October. What’s more, those tactics will likely be on display again on Sunday.
But there is ultimately a bigger prize to be had. Presidential elections expected in the first half of 2018 could define Venezuela’s fate for years to come. Many of the strategic pieces that both sides have to play will be on display Sunday. Here’s a look at where things stand:
Time is of the essence for Venezuela’s government. The election results in October left the opposition in disarray and opened up the possibility for the regime to consolidate total control over the country. Maduro’s ultimate goal is to mold the opposition into a force he is comfortable with, one that represents little threat to his control either morally (through massive demonstrations) or at the ballot box. To that effect, the government has played on existing and persistent divisions within the coalition, offering a mix of carrots and sticks that exacerbate mistrust and leave opposition figures focused on exerting control over each other, rather than on the ultimate goal of restoring democracy.
Meanwhile, the economy is in crisis. Venezuela is in borderline default on its external debt, four-digit inflation is predicted for 2018, and its industrial apparatus is all but destroyed. It is also under constant threat of falling revenues due to the sustained drop in production of its primary export: crude oil. This could eventually jeopardize Maduro’s ability to administer food and financial support to his poorer base of voters, making it harder to coerce or bribe them into supporting him on election day.
This is all part of why the government is keen on hosting municipal and presidential elections sooner rather than later. Though Maduro is clearly able to manipulate local votes in his favor, a presidential election will present a bigger challenge. Maduro’s strategy hinges on his ability to keep opposition voters at home. But turnout for a national election will be higher than it is for provincial or municipal votes, and the local-level manipulation that served him in October (like removing polling places in opposition-friendly neighborhoods) will need to be carried out at a much wider scale. Control over municipalities, which he will look to shore up on Sunday, will help in this effort. In addition to increasing control over local leadership, the government hopes to use the municipal elections to send a message to opposition voters that, when the presidential elections come around, it won’t be worth going out to vote: the government controls the process so thoroughly that there is no hope of defeating it.
The key to Maduro’s strategy is a divided opposition. If he can win the presidential election without resorting to outright fraud and vote rigging, the opposition will effectively cease to be a source of concern for him.
The MUD’s challenge
Maduro’s strategy depends on pulverizing the opposition, but the opposition does have a say in the matter. The good news is that it may yet recover from its defeat in October. The bad news is that it needs to do so in record time, especially if it hopes to play a meaningful role in the presidential elections.
To that effect the MUD remains the most realistic vehicle for the opposition to move toward its ultimate goal: a democratic transition.
Despite its failings, the disintegration of the MUD would have dire consequences for the millions of Venezuelans who are desperate for change. None of the parties or individuals in the coalition is strong enough to confront the regime on their own. Building a new coalition from scratch would take time, delaying the possibility of a democratic challenge to Maduro and his ilk for many years. The only option left is for the forces of change to rebuild and reorient the MUD as quickly as possible. The coalition isn’t participating as an organization on Sunday – but it nonetheless should already be working to correct the shortcomings that have left it on the brink of collapse.
To do this, the MUD should seek out additional sectors of society – including the church, universities, and diverse civil society groups – to maintain pressure on political leaders and keep them focused on the task at hand. This would also allow for better and more fluid communication, so that the population better understands the thought process behind the coalition’s actions – and understands how its immediate goals fit in a long-term plan.
A renewed, more in-tune opposition could take advantage of the government’s weaknesses and start sending a positive message to the population. It is vital that the coalition regain the trust – and with it the electoral strength – that it exhibited in 2015. The end game of all this would be a renewed ability to generate and maintain constant pressure on the regime, an indispensable ingredient, again, for achieving the primary goal of transition.
This, of course, is not an easy task. The atmosphere of distrust that reigns among disparate opposition actors makes it harder still. But such a renewal of the MUD is essential; it is the most obvious, fastest step the opposition can take to get itself back on track. If it fails in this pursuit, the possibility of real change in Venezuela in the short and medium term will become an even more distant dream.
Seijas Rodríguez, Ph.D., is a Venezuelan political analyst and statistician. He is the director of the Delphos poll.