Held amid increasing international pressure, a campaign for non-recognition, extensive sanctions, right-wing calls for boycott, high emigration, and economic recession, these past elections in Venezuela were far from dull for any international spectator, let alone for those of us in the heat of the struggle on the ground.
In the lines that follow, I explore some of the preliminary conclusions from the elections, and more importantly some of the lessons we can take from them concerning the current health of the Bolivarian process, Chavismo, the anti-Chavista opposition, and the problems the country is currently facing.
REGARDING THE BOLIVARIAN PROCESS
First and foremost, those who currently lead the Bolivarian process have successfully managed to maintain political control of the country, in the face of all odds, five years after Hugo Chavez passed away. This should not be forgotten nor underestimated, and is something which few, including this author, believed possible even two or three years ago.
Compared to past events of a similar magnitude over the past 20 years, the results from May 20’s presidential elections show the highest number of Venezuelans who have chosen to not participate in what is the key moment for a population to define the general direction of the nation. Causes for this are numerous, but include the decision of a growing number of Venezuelans to emigrate and not register abroad or legalise their status, or the decision simply to stay at home on election day due to un-inspiring candidates. Either way, it was their choice to exclude themselves, equating to a worrying reversal in one of the advances of the Bolivarian process: the politicization and inclusion of the people in national decisions.
Of those citizens who still wish to participate in the principal decision-making process of the country, the overwhelming majority are Chavista and the overwhelming minority are anti-Chavista. This is an extremely healthy sign for the Bolivarian process given the difficult day to day context in which the country voted, and bodes well for the continued hegemony of the Bolivarian parties in the spaces of national political power in the future.
That said, the majority of the Bolivarian vote was not one for continuity nor conformism. It was a vote with a firm demand for changes and solutions, often with a call for a deepening of the revolutionary process or a harder hand on issues like corruption, price speculation, and national productive deficits, and the president would do well to hear these messages. Many also voted for the Bolivarian option out of a belief that Maduro is best placed to lead an economic recovery, as he has so frequently promised. One of the major challenges facing the re-elected Maduro is how to transcend this electoral success and continue in the strengthening of the communal grassroots forces, as well as bringing about one of his self-professed goals: the replacement of the bourgeois state structure which he leads. It is important for readers to remember that electoral success should not be necessarily equated with revolutionary advance.
Maduro achieved 1,338,715 net votes less than in 2013 with an electoral register 8% larger. These lost votes contributed to a total abstention level of 54%. The majority of these 1.3m lost votes are Chavistas who couldn’t stomach voting for Maduro given the current state of the country, but who would never vote for the political Right. However, we must also mention a certain, albeit very small and unquantifiable, sector who migrated their vote from Maduro to Falcon. Adding these two sectors together, we have a significant number of gravely dissatisfied Chavistas. Maduro would do well to look at this sector of the electorate, to listen to them, and to address their concerns if he wishes to stave off stronger challenges in the future.
With 24 elections in 19 years, the Bolivarian process has continued to strengthen its democratic nature. On this note, it must be said once again that the Venezuelan electoral system is perfectly free, fair, and transparent. These aren’t my words, they are the conclusions of the extensive international technical electoral accompaniment mission which oversaw the May 20 elections. However, the democratic advancement of the Bolivarian process continue to be achieved through a bourgeois representative electoral system, in which greater financing correlates with greater campaigning which correlates with greater chances of winning, and in which campaigning catchphrases still impose themselves over real content. These ills were all too present in this recent campaign and act as a cancer on the back of what Venezuela is looking to achieve: a participative democracy. Whilst steps have been made towards breaking down this bourgeois democratic system, and the re-election of an ex-bus driver should be viewed in this context, one of the major goals for Maduro must surely be to honour his promise to build a participative democracy, which I would add, should not be based on the logic of capital
This writer is convinced that the vast majority (but not all) of those who voted for Maduro were not motivated by a box of food or some other material benefit. After years of economic recession, shortages, and almost worthless wages, the people still re-elected the man at the top. In any other country in the world, he would have been thrown out. Rather, it is my opinion that many, possibly the majority though it is impossible to quantify, were motivated by more overarching ideas of nationalism (protecting their country from foreign intervention or dollarisation), of continuing the current social policies, of keeping the flame of Chavismo alive, and assuming an anti-imperialist stance. This is not to negate the importance of resolving day-to-day problems, but rather to claim that many Maduro supporters today conclude that the resolution of the nation’s current economic woes is more probable by strengthening its anti-imperialist position. As such, this shows that the Bolivarian process has, to some extent and in some sectors of the electorate, transcended the chasing of individual day to day material needs amongst its supporters and successfully implanted a superseding anti-imperialist understanding, which includes seeing the day to day problems in the context of the Venezuelan anti-imperialist struggle, and potentially even a class-based anti-oligarchic consciousness.
Those who backed Maduro this May 20 did so in such difficult economic conditions that they can be considered the “hard” Chavista vote, which the Bolivarian process can count on under current and better conditions. One of the key questions facing Maduro is what will be the reaction of these voters should conditions continue to deteriorate?
Analysis of the figures shows that Chavistas continue to overwhelmingly identify with the United Socialist Party (PSUV) rather than their leftist allies or the new Somos Venezuela movement which emerged from the bosom of the PSUV. This indicates that the draw of the PSUV’s founder, Hugo Chavez, and the phenomenal success of the electoral machinery of the PSUV, which combines community mobilisation with streamlined social services, continues to impose itself some five years after Chavez’s passing. Equally, the electoral results leave clear lessons regarding the popularity of Somos Venezuela, which only achieved 4% of the vote, and the corresponding internal balance of power in the PSUV which saw its creation.
The PSUV now controls the presidency, all 23 state councils, 19 of the 23 governorships, 306 of the 335 mayors, and the National Constituent Assembly is stacked with its members. In the past, Maduro has claimed that since Chavez’s death, the intensity and frequency of local and international attacks against his government not allowed him time nor political space to govern as he would have liked. However, following his May 20 victory, and as he himself said after being sworn in for his second term, the PSUV now has all of the tools at their disposal which should enable him to govern more effectively.
As is typical, support for Maduro was highest in the poor and rural sectors, with right-winger Henri Falcon winning his strongest vote in the city centres where capital is most highly concentrated. This correlates to not only past election demographics, but also a heightened campaign from Maduro in rural sectors and strong policy positions which he has taken on land issues in recent weeks. Maduro would do well to advance further in this area.
Many are guilty of underestimating Maduro. He has successfully seen off internal challenges to his leadership and has secured his position as the man to lead for the next six years. Also and very importantly, he has kept the left largely united behind the Chavista project. Through overcoming right-wing street violence, dividing the opposition, and other tactical moves, Maduro has also managed to leave the opposition more crippled than ever. Whilst in itself, this is not enough to move towards socialism nor bring about the deep-rooted changes the people are demanding, it nonetheless must be commended.
REGARDING THE OPPOSITION
The Venezuelan Right is once again looking into a black hole. “How to topple Chavismo?” they once again ask themselves. After revived hopes in electoral success in the narrow defeat they suffered in 2013, the opposition have plunged themselves back into the depths of electoral misery in spectacular fashion, convincing only 2.8 million voters to support right-wing candidates (Bertucci and Falcon), down some 4.5 million from Capriles’ tally of 7.3 million votes in 2013, and despite an electoral register 8% larger.
The calls for boycott seem to have fallen short of their targets, with a significant chunk of rightist parties participating in elections, dialoguing with Maduro, and with the United Democratic Roundtable (MUD) who called for this boycott, seemingly in internal disarray and self-made political exile.
Washington’s warmongering has backfired, and seems to have only spurred the nationalist sentiment in Venezuela. Washington would have done well to have kept quiet this election. Maduro surely will continue to play the nationalist card very adeptly.
In an almost choreographed manner, the various sectors of the opposition have repeatedly undermined each other, opening the way to six more years of Bolivarian government, much to their distaste. When will they learn to work together?
In tactical moves which Chavez himself would be proud of, President Maduro’s policies have greatly contributed to exploiting the right-wing’s intrinsic divisions, successfully dividing and conquering them. His handling of the street violence of 2014/2017 combined with the calls for dialogue and to participate in elections go some way to explaining the fracturing of the Right and keeping each grouping sufficiently weak so as not to mount a serious challenge to the PSUV
The country has overwhelmingly rejected one of the main differentiating themes of the campaigning: Henri Falcon’s proposal to dollarize the country. Rumours and growing support for dollarisation in past years must surely be put to bed after this election.
The experiment of the ex-Chavista, now right-wing “middle man” Falcon can also be consigned to the rubbish heap of history, and others looking to walk down that road would do well to remember this. Seen by many a few years ago as the figure to reunite the polarised country, Falcon’s crippling defeat and backpedalling on recognising the election results has left him without a solid political base in Venezuela.
Venezuela’s experiment with evangelical standard bearer, Javier Bertucci, whilst not insignificant, did not come close to competing for power, as in Costa Rica or in Brazil. It is however worth noting that for the first time in a significant period of history for Venezuela, a third-party candidate took a sizeable chunk of the vote (11%) based on what can be described as a non-traditional political position (i.e. nor PSUV nor MUD). Whilst in this election Bertucci’s nearly one million votes would not have changed the course of the results should he have resigned in favour of his nearest political ally (Falcon), he nevertheless sets an important precedent for future efforts of a similar nature, either by himself or others who look to break the political makeup of the last 20 years.
REGARDING THE 54% ABSTENTION
Abstentionism hurt Falcon more than Maduro, and galvanising the ample anti-Maduro sentiment should be the priority for any opposition grouping. However, as I will demonstrate, unless those who have emigrated from Venezuela participate in future elections, the chances of the Right are poor.
Over the previous three presidential elections (2006, 2012, 2013), average participation was 78%. Applying this to May’s electoral register (20,526,978) we could have expected a turnout of 16,011,042 with roughly 4.5 million voters constituting the chronic abstentionist group (i.e. people who never choose to vote). The actual turnout was 9,389,056 (46%). So, what happened to those 6,621,986 people who normally would have voted but did not this time?
Upon examining this group, we can identify the following four trends: (a) Those voters based in Venezuela who would normally vote for the Chavista candidate but were not convinced by the qualities of the candidates on offer this year (Maduro or Quijada), (b) Those voters based in Venezuela who normally vote for a right-wing candidate but were not convinced by the qualities of the candidates on offer (Falcon or Bertucci), (c) Those voters based in Venezuela who stuck to the MUD’s call for boycott as part of an effort to undermine the electoral process as a whole, (d) Those voters who normally vote, but have emigrated out of the country and have not legalised their visa status or changed their voting station to their nearest embassy/consulate.
How big are each of these groups? (a) there are 1,338,715 people who voted for Maduro in 2013 but did not this time round. Let’s presume a small percentage of these people switched their vote to other candidates, and an equally small percentage have left the country, it is still likely that close to one million people of this type abstained. (b) and (c) we can observe that the two right-wing candidates (Bertucci and Falcon) amassed 2.8 million votes between them. Now in the last fully contested elections (October 2017, which every right-wing party fought to the best of their ability with a participation of 61%), the right-wing MUD coalition won 5 million votes. Obviously excluding those who have left the country since October 2017, we can see that there are close to 2 million people who voted for the Right in October who didn’t vote for the them this time around, presumably due to a unquantifiable combination of disenchantment with the candidates and adhesion to the boycott calls. (d) figures for emigration range from 2 to 6 million, however only 107,284 were registered to vote abroad. For purposes of our analysis, let’s presume a moderately conservative figure of 3.5 million emigrants since 2013, of which 3.4m are still registered to vote in Venezuela. Whilst there are inevitably some (a tiny percentage) who would have voted for Maduro should they have found themselves in Venezuela, based on traditional voting patterns it is safe to say that the overwhelming majority are anti-Maduro voters. Of these voters, we will never know how many followed the call for boycott, and how many would have voted should they have been in Venezuela.
Hence, we can loosely explain the 11.1 million (54%) absent voters from May 20 in the following way: 4.5 million (22%) chronic abstentionism, 1 million (5%) left-wing abstention of those based in Venezuela, 2 million (10%) right-wing abstention of those based in Venezuela, and 3.5 million (17%) migratory abstentionism (of which the vast majority would likely be opposition abstention).
Thus, we can clearly conclude that “left-wing” abstentionism (emigration, disillusionment with the candidates) cost Maduro around 1-1.5 million votes, whilst right-wing abstention (boycott, disillusionment with the candidates, emigration) seems to have cost Falcon anything up to 5.5 million votes.
From this, and bearing in mind that Maduro won by 4.3 million votes, we can also conclude that should the Venezuelan Right have achieved the following very unlikely combination of conditions, they may have actually won the elections this past May 20:
i- Inspire those who have emigrated to spend the money on an airfare or bus fare to return and vote for them, or to legalise their status and register to vote;
ii- Inspire those based in Venezuela who normally vote for the Right to come out and vote for their candidate;
iii- Unite all of the right-wing parties behind one candidate.
It is worth stating though, that achieving these three conditions at the same time is almost impossible.
Therefore it would be safe to assume that in future elections under equal conditions, unless the right-wing are able to stimulate the emigrant vote, even with a unitary candidature of Falcon, they would only have amassed some 4.8 million votes (1.9 million which Falcon achieved, 0.9 million which Bertucci achieved, plus the 2 million who abstained/boycotted). As such, until the Right finds a way to inspire those Venezuelans who have emigrated to either legalise their status and vote, or return to Venezuela to vote, their electoral propositions are bleak.
Given the present panorama marked by a relatively stable though less popular PSUV government and a severely weakened and divided opposition, two questions remain. Firstly, will this current conjuncture prompt the opposition to once again resort to anti-democratic methods? Secondly, will Maduro take advantage of this period to press forward with genuine revolutionary, structural, and deep reaching changes?