Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution will face its toughest challenge yet this Sunday, when voters go to the polls to elect a new National Assembly. Amid an economic crisis marked by currency instability and inflation, many Venezuelans are understandably going to be thinking hard before casting what would be seen as a vote in support of President Nicolás Maduro.
The government blames economic difficulties on an “economic war” led by opposition sectors, but this is only a small part of the story part. Oil prices are falling, and the rigid currency controls that once shielded Venezuela’s economy have now thrown it into a downward spiral. The crisis is an opportunity for Venezuela’s opposition, but opposition forces have little to offer in the way of policy proposals. If the anti-Chavistas come out on top Sunday, it will not be because they have won, but because the government has lost.
The polls look catastrophic for the Chavistas, but Venezuelan polls are notoriously unreliable, and generalized discontent means that many are undecided, and may not vote at all. The most trusted polls suggest a clear opposition victory in the popular vote, but Chavismo is closing the gap and Maduro’s popularity has rebounded quickly in recent days. Moreover, a complicated system for apportioning parliamentary seats also means that even a large margin of victory for the opposition may not be reflected in the final seat count.
Meanwhile, Democratic presidential contender Hillary Clinton has seized the opportunity to parade her hawkish credentials, insisting on Monday that Maduro is trying to “rig the elections.” Her apparent commitment to democracy in the region is viewed by some with a justified dose of skepticism, however: in her book Hard Choices, Clinton admits to leading a behind-the-scenes push in the State Department to recognize the 2009 coup in Honduras. Clinton’s accusations, along with Edward Snowden’s recent revelations of NSA spying on Venezuela’s state oil company, have led many to suspect that the days of U.S. meddling in Latin America are not over.
Echoing Clinton, a flurry of press coverage has already begun to cry fraud. A Washington Post editorial has even preemptively denounced “Venezuela’s dirty election,” even suggesting that “pressure should be applied” if the results are not satisfactory. But the Post’s claims simply don’t hold up. For example, concerns about gerrymandering are severely exaggerated. Venezuela’s electoral system skews toward the rural areas, and while this will favor the Chavistas on Sunday, a similar rural bias exists elsewhere, notably the U.S. Senate. Moreover, what the Post calls a “concocted, pro-regime party with a very similar name to the opposition’s coalition” has, in fact, existed under the same name since 2005, long before the opposition coalition.
Further, Venezuela has clashed very publicly with the Organization of American States over its proposed observer mission, but it’s not entirely clear why this is controversial. Many countries, again including the U.S., have refused OAS observer missions, with some citing the organization’s interference in Haiti’s 2010 election. Nevertheless, many international observers will indeed be present in Venezuela, from the Union of South American Nations (Unasur) and a host of other organizations, alongside domestic observers from both sides.
Either in retaliation, or simply as further proof that these concerns are justified, OAS head Luis Almagro didn’t hesitate to denounce the shooting death of a local opposition candidate as politically motivated. In this, Almagro was joined by Clinton, who called the killing a “cold-blooded assassination.” Neither wondered what the government would gain from murdering local opponents, and neither waited for the investigation, which has since suggested the victim had deep mafia ties and was killed by a rival gang.
Five opposition candidates have indeed been barred from running in the elections, mostly on charges of corruption, but this practice is not unusual. Many pro-government candidates have also been barred on similar grounds throughout the years, and Colombia’s recent regional elections, saw a whopping 729 candidates disqualified from running,
Thanks in part to opposition scrutiny, the Venezuelan electoral system has become, in the words of Jimmy Carter, “the best in the world.” Technologically advanced and nearly foolproof, the system offers twenty-one different mechanisms to ensure an accurate count–including biometric (fingerprint) scanning–and audits are conducted in the presence of witnesses. Sunday’s election will be clean, just as Maduro’s April 2013 election by a razor-thin margin was also clean.
But just as the opposition cried fraud then, they will likely do the same after Sunday, even if they win by what they consider too small a margin. With some already claiming they will take to the streets if they don’t like the result, there are worries of new campaigns to destabilize the government. After the 2013 election, street protests led to 10 deaths, with 43 more dying on both sides in subsequent protests in early 2014, which opposition leaders have been accused of inciting.
Any victory for the Venezuelan opposition will be a serious blow to the Bolivarian Revolution that Hugo Chávez helped set into motion two decades ago. Government mismanagement aside, recent years have seen a Venezuela that is more equal, more socially just, and more democratic, not less. But with the recent election of conservative Mauricio Macri in Argentina, many are now wondering if we are witnessing the end of an era in Latin America.
A defeat in the National Assembly would be more than merely symbolic, however. With a simple majority, opposition forces could become a major thorn in the side of the Maduro government, promoting gridlock and stoking conflict. With the two-thirds supermajority some polls suggest, it could transform the Supreme Court, the Constitution, and may even eye Maduro’s impeachment.