The electoral result of the 2017 mayoral elections can tell us a lot about how the 2018 political contest may play out. Certainly, the Chavista landslide win of 300 out of 335 mayorship positions it as a favorite for any electoral event. But these results are not sufficient to win a presidential election. Here we will try to analyze today’s conjuncture and make projections for the 2018 presidential election.
1. The [United Socialist Party of Venezuela electoral] machine is well oiled and in its moment of greatest cohesion and efficiency. With an [opposition] adversary severely divided and rejected, even by its most steadfast supporters, due to its political actions in recent months – which oscillated uncontrollably from political violence to dialogue to electoral abstention – it’s obvious that Chavismo came out on top. But the situation in 2018 does not give Chavismo much of an electoral advantage. Let’s take a look.
2. The votes won by the [PSUV] machine are not sufficient to win a presidential election. The Chavista vote has been stagnant. Chavismo has not succeeded in increasing its electoral support, but rather it has maneuvered tactically in order to win with a small number of votes. If we put to one side the 2017 National Constituent Assembly elections (which are difficult to measure, as there were no [official opposition] contenders and it was held in the midst of opposition violence), the rest of the results for the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) average at five and a half million votes since the National Assembly (AN) elections in 2015 (where it lost overwhelmingly), the 2017 gubernatorial elections (where it won overwhelmingly), and in these mayoral elections, where it triumphed with a similar number of votes, amid opposition in-fighting. All of them, defeats and victories, with a similar quantity of votes.
3. The 2018 presidential elections will approach 20 million potential voters, of whom, if current trends remain, 80 percent will vote. That is, in order to win a [presidential] election, a minimum of 9 or 10 million votes is required, nearly 40 percent more than what the PSUV has been receiving (unless there are more than two options with electoral force).
4. In order for the opposition to recover and garner the same result as the 2015 AN elections, it will have to succeed in reunifying its tactics and strategies, coordinating its discourses and preparing for an early presidential election (possibly in April), including the possibility of bringing forward legislative elections. This seems like an uphill struggle for the opposition, unless an outsider appears who can rally hardcore opposition supporters who have gone for abstention, but also Chavistas who have voted for the opposition in 2013 and 2015, but have been scared away by its behavior, above all the political violence. It seems like Lorenzo Mendoza’s “campaign of acclaim*” is an indication that the businessman will be a candidate for the opposition.
5. The votes of the Chavista machine could be sufficient if the distrust of the opposition supporters wins-out on the day and they end up abstaining, or even worse, if the opposition stands multiple candidates. None of this has ever happened before in the country. What will undoubtedly wrest many votes from the opposition is the new massive migration of Venezuelans abroad, who mostly gravitate towards the opposition, but won’t be able to vote outside the country. But a coherent opposition with an outsider candidate who channels discontent like the opposition did in 2015 has a big chance of winning the 2018 presidential election.
6. Like the last elections, Maduro is relying exclusively on the party machinery. Observe that since his near tie with Capriles in 2013 he has not toured the country, which one must do in an electoral campaign in order to win over those on the fence. The government depends on the rationality of the machine, on its thorough exploitation. There has not been a deployment of charisma on the part of Chavismo. We no longer see presidential visits to barrios and homes in the style of Chavez. What has changed is not the political strategy to win elections, but the form of government; [which has gone] from that of a system based on its charismatic leader, to the triumph of the bureaucratic machinery, in a political, not pejorative, sense. We will have to see if this forecast remains the same in 2018 or if there is a change of rhythm in Chavista politics.
7. It remains to be seen if an opposition candidate has the capacity to bring charisma to these elections, and with it the capacity to revive politics as collective enthusiasm. What’s certain is that if Chavismo repeats the vote it got in the last three elections in which it has not had [serious] contenders, it will be very difficult to win the presidential election, unless the opposition ends up divided and the Mendoza candidacy does not materialize due to his lack of political will or political disqualification.
8. Just as Chavismo has already had possibilities to recover, the opposition has also come back from the ashes in other opportunities. It must be remembered that after its worst political and electoral defeat in 2006, when they had just surrendered the AN and the governorships due to their call for abstention, the opposition surprisingly beat Chavismo the next year. It’s obvious that they are going to try to repeat this, and if they can do it, it will be because Chavismo is overconfident to the point of wanting to bring forward elections. From this point of view, the opposition has a strength that we will have to see if it knows how to use: to surprise a government that feels victorious.
9. The fact that the map of mayoral wins was left almost totally red [the PSUV won more than 300 of 335 municipalities], does not say much about a presidential election. It should be recalled that after the 1992 coup, specifically in 1995, Democratic Action, achieved an overwhelming victory in the state-governor elections, winning all except one. However, AD would never go on to win another presidential election. We don’t mean that the results of December 10 are unimportant, but rather that they are insufficient; a factor which could be aggravated by the economic situation. Nonetheless, this [electoral] event will complete the [success] of the [PSUV] machine, which will emerge more oiled and strengthened, but not necessarily more inclusive in terms of potential voters: Chavismo has not grown and it doesn’t appear to have a clear strategy to do so.
10. The ghosts which traverse the opposition and government camps will be especially important for the political contest of 2018. For the government, the heightening of the economic crisis (plus the weakness of the opposition) make it appear as the only party responsible for the exhausting and uncontrolled situation. But the ghost of violence and guarimbas is pursuing the opposition, which is why their candidate must be as detached as possible from that scenario.
*Translator's note: Speculation has arisen on social media and mainstream press in recent weeks that billionaire Venezuelan businessman and owner of food conglomerate Polar will stand for president on behalf of the opposition in next year’s general elections.
Translated by Lucas Koerner and Rachael Boothroyd Rojas for Venezuelanalysis.com.