Javier Biardeau: Regional Elections Are Strategic Fight for Future of Chavismo

Renowned political columnist and university professor Javier Biardeau discusses Venezuela's upcoming regional elections this Sunday.

Javier Biardeau
Javier Biardeau

Renowned political columnist and university professor Javier Biardeau discusses Venezuela’s upcoming regional elections this Sunday. 

What influence is the National Constituent Assembly [ANC] going to have on the regional elections process?

I think there is uncertainty because there are a lot of factors in the equation. There is the issue of the balance sheet of expectations people have towards the ANC. You’d have to look at what people think about which expectations have been fulfilled and which have not. This is a fundamental point. Obviously, the achievement of public calm [with the end of the violent anti-government protests] is an accomplished objective. But taking on economic problems continues to be a pending challenge, despite the speech by President Maduro in the ANC when he proposed the eight laws. I feel that, although some measures have been taken, there is still an interrupted discussion around what the ANC can or can’t do in the economic arena. That tension is exploding in the heart of the ANC. There is also a great expectation in terms of what the ANC will do on the issue of corruption following the conflict with [former Attorney General] Luisa Ortega Diaz. This is in process. In any case, the regional elections are characterized by many uncertainties. It’s an election with greater uncertainty than in the previous years. It’s a strategic election; it’s not a conventional set of regional races.

What’s your take on these elections in light of the latest polls?

It’s clear that President Maduro can count on a significant electoral base. If one extrapolates his popularity to the regional elections, I think there will be a result very different to that projected by Torino Capital [an investment bank whose analyses are frequently cited by opposition spokespeople] that the government would only win three to five governorships. There is an underestimation of the PSUV electoral machine’s mobilization capacity and the solid support that the president still retains.

So, do you give credit to the president’s regained popularity?

I think it’s an objective fact that this [bump in popularity] has occurred in the last two months. Moreover, it’s clear that the opposition is suffering an internal crisis in its coalition because the result of the ANC caused them an internal fracture that is visible, it can be verified. There is a partisan faction that operates on the agenda of July 16, of what they called a plebiscite [in which the opposition asked their supporters if they wanted military intervention, a parallel government, and a halt to the ANC process] and there is a faction that said it was necessary to register in the regional elections and contest the government electorally.

Do you think opposition supporters will be willing to vote in this occasion?

If we pay attention to the opposition’s own propaganda, it can be concluded that they are very worried about this point. You can see that they consider it fundamental to fight abstention, and this is because they think there is a sector of their social base that is reluctant to vote. The fact is that people banded together on the agenda of dual power put forward by the same opposition leadership, the idea of setting up a parallel government. Measuring the forces at play will also be fundamental within the ranks of the opposition, to clarify their own path towards 2018: will it be a confrontational agenda, which is once again about short-cuts, or will they go down the electoral path, which means co-existence up until the 2018 presidential elections?

Is it difficult to make a prediction then?

The data available to me in particular suggest a hard-fought election. It is not going to be like the [National Assembly elections] of 2015, when the opposition won by a large margin. Everything will depend on the attitude of opposition activists, who have less mobilizational capacity at election time. I think it’s possible that opposition divisions damage them in Amazonas state, which would be a serious blow because it would turn the National Assembly panorama on its head and give the government grounds to argue that effectively there was fraud in that state in 2015. Moreover, it would also favour the government if there is a high rate of abstention amongst traditional opposition voters in Miranda state. The government, on the other hand, will have problems in strategic states like Zulia if the opposition mobilises as a unified force.

It isn’t clear then if on October 16 we will wake up to a tendency towards dialogue, or an intensification of the violence?

It will depend on the result. If it is favourable to the opposition, but with a small majority, then that will favour a peaceful, democratic alternative. But if the opposition comes second to the government, then even more so. A favourable scenario for the government would be to at least win a small margin in terms of the national vote. If it manages to turn the 2015 legislative vote around, even by two to three points, then that would neutralise the possibility of violence. The same would happen if the opposition wins by a small percentage, because that would mean that the government has managed to recover in relation to 2015.

The opposition would have to win a knockout victory for violence to be on the cards again? 

Even if they win by a knockout, we wouldn’t see violence straight away. In that case what would happen is that the opposition would have the necessary muscle to force the government’s hand in the anticipated negotiations. There is a sector [of the opposition] that believes that a victory at this moment would give them the upper hand in negotiations to force the government into ceding ground, even without the threat of violence. Some believe that it would lead to an organized retreat by Chavismo. But there is a lot of uncertainty because from what I have been able to sound out, I cannot clearly see that the opposition will have a similar result to 2015.

The Trump Factor

Another variable that will be measured in Sunday’s elections, according to Biardeau, is the opinion of the people in relation to the sanctions imposed by the government of Donald Trump.

“It is a real threat, it is not an invention, and it doesn’t just go against the government, but against the Venezuelan sovereignty. That is so much the case that even the countries that were aligned against Venezuela in the OAS [Organization of American States] practically took two steps backwards. On Sunday, we will see what the electorate thinks of that,” he said.

By way of conclusion, the columnist and professor of Latin American studies in the Central University of Venezuela, insisted that the upcoming election will be the most uncertain of recent years.

“They really are strategic elections, not just a simple regional vote,” he stressed.

This interview was edited and translated by Venezuelanalysis.