What if there was an election and no one cared? Venezuela's Opposition goes out with a whimper

December 8, 2020
December 9, 2020
World Elections

This past weekend Venezuelan voters went the polls to elect a new National Assembly to replace the opposition controlled-one elected in December 2015. One could be forgiven for being unaware any such election was taking place. Venezuelans by and large gave the whole event a pass, and even the Maduro government seemed too embarrassed try and promote the myth of voter engagement. Official results showed a turnout rate of just 31% of registered voters. As the one thing the Venezuelan opposition can be relied upon for is to never let the Maduro government have the last word, opposition representatives were quick to allege even this figure was inflated, and that the actual number might be as low as 20%. Honestly, though, it is hard to see why Maduro and his allies would bother. The official results show the "Great Patriotic Pole" the alliance led by the ruling Socialist Unity Party(PSUV) receiving 4,294,130 votes, which is well down on the 5,625,248 votes they received in 2015 when the opposition won a two thirds majority. While ballot stuffing cannot be ruled out, it is perfectly plausible that the PSUV managed to retain 75% of its 2015 electorate from an election it after all lost conclusively without any need for outright fabrication of results. The difference is whereas in 2015 5,625,248 votes accounted for 40.9%, in 2020, 4,294,130 represented 69.2%. The difference, as in the 2018 Presidential "election" was the opposition vote which plummeted from 7.8 million to around 1.1 million.

The reality is that the opposition did not show up, as they have not for any sort of Venezuelan election since their December 2015 triumph. To be fair, Juan Guaido, the self-proclaimed "President" and leader of that assembly claims the current elections are a farce and that Luis Parra, who led the "opposition" coalition in this year's contest is a traitor and PSUV-puppet. It is true Parra took part in a ham-fisted effort to remove Guaido as head of the National Assembly(and implicitly as any sort of Presidential claimant) with the support of the PSUV last summer. But it is equally plausible that Parra may genuinely feel that Guaido's efforts represent a dead-end, in fact that ultimate personification of the dead-end the opposition's tactics since 2015 have led to. Without a doubt, Maduro's regime did everything possible to widen divisions within the opposition camp, even intervening within the leadership of opposition parties(though their most blatant abuse of the legal system came with their treatment of their own "allies" who saw their leaders replaced when they showed signs of leaving the GPP), but Maduro and co had plenty to work with. Guaido's foes included not non-entities, but opposition figures with far more extensive pedigrees than the young National Assembly President who has never held a regional position or run for the Presidency, including Henrique Capriles, the opposition candidate in 2012 and 2013. Capriles won 44% of the vote against Chavez in 2012 and 49.4%(and probably won) against Maduro in 2013. Capriles, by the way, is like Parra persona non grata in Guaido's court, seen as yet another sell-out who advocated compromise with Maduro.

At the heart of this dispute is a division over the proper approach to the "system" which has bedeviled the opposition since Chavez first won election in 1998. On one side are those, who, from the moment Chavez pushed for a constituent assembly in 1999, saw every action Chavez and his successor took as unconstitutional, and participation as acquiescence in his actions. For this group, the pre-2000 Constitution, is still in effect, however much they may try to make claims based upon the current one, and electoral participation is not an end in and of itself, but merely a tool with which to gain power to turn back the clock and restore "constitutional governance." For all the legal niceties this "current" led the opposition to back a military coup against Chavez in 2002, and to push a recall in 2004, but to boycott elections in-between. On the other side were those who were willing to work within the system, either because they believed that it was necessary, or because they actually supported many of the changes Chavez had made, and disliked his authoritarian bent. This "current" was evident in the 2007 Constitutional Referendum in which Chavez's efforts to remove term-limits was removed. That Chavez bypassed his defeat at the hands of the electorate by having the Constitutional Court allow him to run for an additional term anyway demonstrated both the potential and limitations of participation. A coalitional approach to electoral participation could achieve victory at the ballot box, but those victories could not prevent Chavez and Maduro from cheating. In turn, opposition to their rule-breaking was the broadest possible basis for creating an anti-regime coalition. By uniting on a platform of holding Chavez and Maduro to their own Constitution, the opposition side-stepped where they differed on policy. Capriles probably actually won in 2013, and while he was potentially denied the presidency through fraud, the close official result, 49.4% meant that even pro-regime forces conceded that he was likely to win the next election if Maduro did not improve the economy. This narrative in pro-government circles had a double-meaning. It was a message to Capriles and the opposition that if they showed a willingness to reassure certain stakeholders they would be allowed to take power in the future through peaceful electoral means. In turn, it was a warning to Maduro that not all Chavistas were committed to him. While the strategy of electoral engagement between 2007 and 2013 had on paper then achieved little. A referendum victory in 2007 which was set aside, and two presidential defeats with 44% and 49% respectively, on a wider level it established the opposition as a viable future government, and ushered in a new balance. One which featured Maduro, the opposition, and a Chavista elite who were willing to live with either. Maduro himself clearly did not share this generosity towards the opposition; after all, his future was on the line. But that did not stop the opposition from coming together in a broad coalition stretching from dissident Chavistas to conservatives in the form of the Democratic Roundtable(MUD) to win a two-thirds majority in the December 2015 elections for the national assembly. The key power-brokers, those committed to neither Maduro or his removal, now had a balance between an opposition controlled National Assembly and Maduro in the Presidency. Or so it seemed.

For the first time the opposition was in power. Yes they had controlled the Caracas mayor-ship for years, and regional governments, but this was the first time they held actual authority over a major branch of the state within the Chavista system. It was an opportunity but also a test of their commitment to that system. Were they, as they claimed, a loyal opposition which accepted the Constitution and wished to operate and, eventually, to govern within it? Or did they still view the entire state as illegal, everyone who had served it since 1999 as criminals, and seek to turn back the clock? The performance of prominent opposition figures in the local offices they had occupied presented an ominous precedent. As noted, the opposition had consistently maintained control of the Caracas municipal government. Yet rather than using it as a base from which to build support for a potential national campaign, opposition mayors had consistently used it as a base from which to try and overthrow the state, refusing to cooperate with the central government, feuding with its organs, and effectively rendering the system non-functional. Did the Chavez and then Maduro governments try and undermine localities ruled by the opposition? Absolutely. And they eventually removed or drove into exile a series of Caracas mayors. But those mayors aided in the process by never actually trying to do their job as mayors and instead acting like rebel leaders. The precedent was timely. Opposition local governments refused to recognize the legality of the central authorities. The central authorities responded by bypassing them in favor of unofficial organs such as the local militias or government supporters. In protest, the legally constituted opposition authorities engaged in shutdowns and refused to comply with legal orders. In response, Chavez and then Maduro removed them from office. Leaving aside the legal and moral rights or wrongs, there was no reason to believe that if the National Assembly acted in the same way, Maduro also wouldn't bypass it, and the evidence was he would succeed.

A Five Year Fructidor

Coexistence was not just a priority, as I noted at the time, but a necessity. The National Assembly needed to make Maduro the threat to the Constitution, the system, and the country, and force him into the role as the source of instability. That was how they could have won over the military and new economic elite among the Chavistas who wanted peace and quiet after 15 years of revolution. Yet there were obstacles to adopting this approach which went beyond matters of strategy. The split between the supporters of accommodation with the Chavez system, and those who favored confrontation was not purely about tactics. It also papered over ideological differences. The anti-Chavez coalition included those who opposed Chavez(and later Maduro) because they were authoritarian, those who opposed them because they were leftists, and those who opposed them because they were authoritarian leftists. An accommodationist approach appealed to those for whom the problem with the system had not been Chavez's policies or by 2015 even Chavez, but Maduro himself. They did not believe the pre-1999 system had worked, and had no desire to return. They might have some attachment to free market methods, but they lacked a moral commitment to property rights which would have made them see the nationalizations as some sort of crime to be reversed. As far as many were concerned, the old elites had been awful themselves, and earned their fate. On the other end, however, were scions of those old elites, as well as those with an ideological commitment to property rights in a very Latin America manner where support for capitalism becomes associated with support for a natural hierarchy and social order . For this group, the "revolution" itself was the affront, and Maduro simply a symptom. Venezuela could not be "free" unless all the stains of Chavism were wiped away. They had no wish to take part in a two-party system with Chavismo. They only consented to take part in elections as a means of achieving its destruction. It was illegitimate. It had no right to exist.

Almost immediately upon the results being declared in December 2015, this hard-line faction of the opposition began agitating for the National Assembly to use its two-thirds majority to impeach both the Supreme Court for allowing Chavez to run again in 2012 despite his defeat in the 2007 Referendum, and to impeach Maduro. This was not an effort to act as a parliament in a government of multiple branches. It was a declaration of war on the others. Worse, it forced Maduro out into the open. There were many within regime circles who might have resisted efforts by Maduro to act outside the law if the National Assembly too behaved within its rights. Instead, by declaring an intention to conquer or die by immediately removing all other branches from office, the majority forced the regime to act. In practice, the response was muted. It involved challenging the eligibility of 3 MPs, enough to deny the opposition a two-thirds majority for a Presidential impeachment. The opposition's assembly majority was not touched, nor were the seats turned over to Chavistas. They were merely frozen.

At the time I wrote a piece warning that this was a period of both maximum danger and maximum opportunity for the opposition. They had triumphed not because anyone had much use for any of them. In general, no one could name most of the ever-changing list of parties that were part of the MUD. Instead, they had triumphed because a large majority of Venezuelans were tired of the chaos and poverty of Maduro's rule, and even many Chavez loyalists resented his cronyism, authoritarianism, and incompetence. They wanted a rapprochement with the United States and Europe along with the business community. If the new MUD majority could prove they could offer that, and furthermore that they did not seek the destruction of their enemies but rather the salvation of Venezuela and the end of the chaos of Maduroism then they stood to not just win the next election, but be allowed to take power.

I had a premonition this was not the course that would be taken, and within six months of the National Assembly elections I was predicting disaster. As it turned out I was correct. The opposition saw the suspension of the 3 MPs as an act of constitutional war, and proceeded to do everything in their power to shut down the Venezuelan government until their "rights" were respected in full. Seeing the clash as one of principle and law rather than as a political negotiation, they passed resolutions reinstating the members, and then proceeded to try and impeach judges, ministers, and other officials. For 18 months the National Assembly passed no laws it was empowered to pass, and hundreds of resolutions without effect. When Maduro resorted to the extra-constitutional method of calling a Constituent Assembly, even his critics had to concede that Venezuela's legal National Assembly was non-functional and had no interest in functioning with Maduro.

It is not worth recounting again the farce of the 2018 elections which the opposition split on boycotting and Maduro won with 6.2 million votes, 1.5 million than the opposition had won in 2015, though I did so a year and a half ago. Having boycotted the elections the National Assembly in a final act declared the Presidency void and its own presiding officer President. In doing so they bet everything on the twin pillars of international support, and that of the domestic military. In both cases, the disease was the same. The opposition stood on their rights, ignored pragmatism and refused to adopt any plan that required them to do anything themselves. Instead, they relied on others, whether Chavista Generals or foreign governments to do the work themselves. It is hardly a surprise that few senior officers were inclined to risk their careers for such a class of "leader" or that by the fall of 2019 even the Bolsinaro regime in Brazil was disgusted with their uselessness and entitlement of the Guaido operation. Maduro hardly needed to put in the work this year. The opposition was divided and demoralized, and whereas in 2018 division had perhaps driven demoralization, in 2020 the opposition electorate was too demoralized to care about the divisions.

Whatever happens in Venezuela, and the current situation is sustainable for no one, not Maduro, not the political elite, not the opposition, not the international community; it is pretty clear that Juan Guaido and his team will not be part of it. Even leaving aside whether it is possible to take power in Venezuela without at least the acquiesce of large parts of the Chavista elite and electorate, holding it would be impossible. The opposition needs to recognize that no one is going to hand them power. They need to solve their own problems. And trying to focus on their country's might be a good place to start.


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