In politics, as in boxing, one must take into account that one’s opponent is also fighting. Forgetting this is the fastest and safest way to end up on the canvas.
This is why we must analyse the strategic changes that the [ruling] United Socialist Party (PSUV) is making for the next electoral contest [scheduled for December 6, 2020 when deputies for the National Assembly will be elected].
New rules of the game
The first thing to do is to look at the procedural changes and the modification of the voting system which elects deputies via list and nominal votes.
For the 2015 National Assembly elections, only 52 of the 167 deputies were chosen by proportional representation (lists), but even this was not really proportional and did not facilitate minority representation. The makeup of the country’s circumscriptions offered only one or two seats per list in most cases, and these were generally shared between the two largest political forces.
This mechanism ended up promoting the formation of large coalitions or alliances: the ‘Simon Bolivar’ Great Patriotic Pole (GPPSB) [comprised of 15 political parties of a centre-left and left-wing nature] which is dominated by the PSUV; and the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) which is dominated by the "Group of 4" or G4 comprised of [opposition parties] Justice First, Popular Will, Democratic Action and A New Era.
For this year’s elections, the first modification to the electoral system is the increase of the total seats to 277. Of that total, 52 percent (144 seats) will be elected proportionally through lists and the remaining 48 percent by nominal votes. This certainly represents a breakthrough and generates possibilities for greater proportional representation of minority parties.
The contradiction facing the PSUV
While greater proportionality was a long-standing demand of left-wing parties, such as Homeland for All (PPT) and the Communist Party (PCV), the changes were not achieved through negotiations with these parties, but rather with the moderate opposition outfits that make up the National Roundtable for Peaceful Dialogue. To ensure the participation of these moderate opposition parties in the upcoming elections, the government had to offer better conditions.
The PSUV’s calculation is that it needs parties on the right to run to make the process more "competitive," and these parties demanded a return to proportionality, among other things. The contradiction is that this could weaken the PSUV's dominance over other left-wing parties, which see greater proportionality as an opportunity to run on their own and achieve better representation.
On the other hand, the increase in the number of seats could be seen as an attempt by the PSUV to increase its bargaining power with left-wing parties. But, to what extent is this the case?
A low blow to the left?
In some leftist parties, members are waiting for the usual offer of a "perfect [patriotic] alliance" from the PSUV. But does the ruling party really need to resort to an alliance with leftist parties?
As we saw above, 48 percent of the seats will still be elected nominally. This mechanism benefits large party electoral machines and parties with huge resources to invest in campaigns. Since much of the opposition is planning on abstaining so as to not recognise the elections, we can say that it is unlikely that the right will win a large number of seats via the nominal route.
Thus, the PSUV should be left with a free path to win the majority of these seats, with a few exceptions. The parties on the left, whose electoral reputation has been weakened in recent years by successive alliances with the government, will not make a significant dent in this respect.
By adding the votes of the left wing parties to those of the ruling party, the PSUV does not get a significant electoral advantage in the nominal seats, given that the extra votes won’t make much difference in the relative breach between the PSUV and the Right. Thus one may understand the comments from PSUV Vice President Diosdado Cabello, who said that "there isn’t enough room for so many people" in reference to the supposed demands of the rest of the GPPSB parties.
So, the PSUV does not need to offer seats to parties which don’t play a decisive role in their victory in the next election. Instead, the increase in the total number of seats could help it push its strategy of co-opting popular leaders, effectively striking at the kidneys of the left. The PSUV’s calculation is simple: grassroots movements are what inflates the left wing parties’ votes, so their leaders should be challenged or co-opted.
In the last local council elections [in December 2018], the PPT successfully tried out the strategy of allying with popular power with very good results, lending its electoral ticket to allied parties, popular leaders and communes for them to participate. With these "democratic candidacies,” the PPT managed to garner more than 277,000 votes to its national tally, 303 percent more than in the [May 2018] presidential election in which the party only got 91,500 votes. If we also take into account that more than 9 million voters participated in the presidential election compared to 5.6 million in the councillor ballot, one can see that the key difference was that the PPT supported the PSUV candidate in May while presenting itself as an alternative in December.
The above evaluation helps explain why the PSUV, to date, has not set up a negotiating workgroup with the parties on the left and is instead pointing towards a strategy of co-opting popular power leaders to stem the development of a left-wing alternative in the electoral field.
A rerun of the Constituent Assembly vote?
Another reason that the government isn’t making great overtures to build a "perfect alliance” with the left is to try to replicate a phenomenon seen in the July 2017 National Constituent Assembly elections.
The idea is that if there are alternative candidates to those of the PSUV (plus those of the opposition), more people will be motivated to participate. This may be because they know the candidate or because they see the opportunity to express their rejection of the PSUV without having to vote for the Right. In this way, competition attracts more voters without necessarily posing a risk to the government.
This also explains why the new vice-president of the Electoral Council (CNE), Rafael Jiménez, announced electoral campaign financing (not to be confused with the public financing of political parties, which is forbidden by the Constitution).
The government has already achieved its objective of dividing the opposition and having large sectors call for abstention. What it now needs is to ensure minimum levels of participation to legitimise the newly elected National Assembly.
Towards a revolutionary alternative
The PSUV's strategy, while potentially posing a blow for the left, is not enough to knock it out. This is because the increase in the number of seats will never be enough to satisfy the craving for public office within the ruling party.
Likewise, the Venezuelan people are like dry leather: when they are trodden down on one side, they rise up on the other [a Venezuelan saying]. While the left has been greatly damaged by the government's co-optation strategy, this strategy can never fully deprive popular power of its leaders, who continue to emerge in the heat of popular struggles.
The government will be hard pressed to quell these popular struggles by trying to co-opt its leaders, as their causes lie in government policies themselves. Either popular power is completely eradicated or it will follow the path of organising and strengthening to reclaim revolutionary struggle. The parties of the left must bet on the latter of these two options and become revolutionary instruments in the hands of the people.
The rescuing of the revolution is not a quick task. To think that December’s election will solve the people's problems is a mistake that can only lead to further demoralisation.
The truth, however, is that these elections provide an opportunity to build a left-wing reference, and to skilfully strike a blow with a revolutionary political agenda.
We must put those who refuse to talk about wages, privatisations, campesino evictions and arbitrary worker’s arrests against the ropes. This must be an electoral campaign to shout out what neither the government nor the Right are saying, but what the people are crying out to hear.
Leander Perez holds degrees in Political Leadership and Government, as well as in Political and Public Management. He is a member of Homeland for All (PPT) party.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Venezuelanalysis editorial staff.
Translation by Paul Dobson for Venezuelanalysis.