Is This the End of Chávez’s Venezuela?

Voters in Venezuela are threatening to give Nicolás Maduro's ruling party the boot in Sunday's election — if the Chavistas let them.


CARACAS — Karin Salanova knows that when Venezuelans head to the polls on Sunday to elect a new National Assembly, the cards will be stacked against her. But Salanova, a 40-year-old lawyer running as the opposition’s candidate for the third circuit in the central industrial state of Aragua, is optimistic about her chances in spite of the overwhelming advantages enjoyed by Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and his ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV). “It’s not a fair contest,” Salanova said in an interview. “The government is pulling out all of the stops to maintain control of the assembly.”

Venezuelans go to the polls against the backdrop of a faltering economy (which could contract as much as 10 percent this year), soaring crime, a U.S.-led corruption investigation into the state oil company, and the recent arrest of the first lady’s nephews on drug smuggling charges. The election has also become a referendum as to whether Venezuela will continue adhering to Chavismo, the political and economic movement founded by late President Hugo Chávez, who launched the country’s socialist revolution. It could even be the first step to ousting Maduro.

Facing a political insurgency that threatens to break its hold on power, the PSUV is, according to Salanova, using every trick in the book: The party is allegedly using public funds to bankroll its campaign, deploying ambulances and public vehicles to distribute PSUV literature, handing out food and scarce goods in poor neighborhoods to curry votes, and broadcasting pro-PSUV cadenas nacionales — programming that all television and radio stations are required by law to run — almost nonstop while the opposition struggles to get any media exposure at all. Government-run television stations have ignored opposition candidates, and the government has cut back paper supplies to newspapers that support those running against the PSUV. As a result, many opposition candidates have relied almost entirely on social media to get their message out.

Government institutions that are supposed to be autonomous, such as the National Electoral Council (CNE), whose task it is to run fair and clean elections, have repeatedly bent the rules to give the PSUV an unfair advantage, Salanova and her compatriots charge. The council, which is controlled by members of Maduro’s party, has allowed several parties the opposition has decried as fake to run, some incorporating parts of the name of Salanova’s Democratic Unity coalition (known by its Spanish acronym MUD), in an apparent ploy to confuse voters. On top of which, the CNE has made several controversial rulings to further the PSUV’s advantage.

“Several of our leaders have been barred from running,” Salanova said. “Many polling precincts are in government housing developments, making it difficult for voters to vote against the PSUV for fear of losing their homes.”

There may be obstacles in front of them, but polls suggest that Salanova and her MUD coalition might be able to win a majority of the assembly’s 167 seats and end 15 years of rule by the PSUV and its precursors. Some polls show that the MUD holds as much as a 30-point lead nationwide over the PSUV in the closing days of the campaign. Maduro’s approval rating has been hovering between 20 and 30 percent — down some 30 points since his 2013 inauguration according to Datanalisis.

Wresting control of the assembly won’t be easy, however. Under Venezuela’s complicated voting rules, 113 seats will be allocated on first-past-the-post voting (whoever has the most votes wins) in 87 electoral districts; 51 seats are allocated by proportional representation on a state-by-state basis that doesn’t take into account populations; and three seats are reserved for native peoples. Past gerrymandering means rural states are favored over the most populous urban states, such as Aragua. Although Venezuela’s six largest states have 52 percent of the country’s population, they only elect 38 percent of the members of the assembly. In 2010, the opposition won 65 seats compared to the PSUV’s 98, even though the two parties were separated by exactly one percentage point.

This time, the opposition seems to have enough support to pull off a win. “If the elections are fair, I expect the MUD will have between a five- to 10-seat majority in the assembly,” said Caracas-based political consultant Tarek Yorde, who formerly advised PSUV candidates. Such an outcome would be the first time since 1999, when Chávez rewrote the constitution and created the National Assembly, that the opposition would control the legislature.

“The overriding issue is the economy,” said Margarita López Maya, a Venezuelan historian at the Central University of Venezuela. “People have lost faith in the government and the president’s ability to offer solutions. Nothing else really matters when people are facing problems just surviving. People are desperate for a change.”

The central bank has stopped publishing relevant data for some time, including GDP and inflation, but signs of the country’s economic woes are everywhere. The country’s currency, the strong bolívar, is worthless outside the country. Although the official exchange rate is 6.3 strong bolivars to the dollar, the government maintains a separate rate of 12 bolívares to the dollar for select industries and a third rate of 200 to the dollar for most other transactions. However, dollar shortages mean that many Venezuelans have had no choice but to buy dollars on the black market, where the rate is touching 920 to the dollar, up from 200 to the dollar at the start of the year. According to the International Monetary Fund, Venezuela’s GDP will likely contract 10 percent this year, and inflation is expected to hit 159 percent and rise to 204 percent in 2016. Venezuelans now spend hours, daily, chasing such staples as milk, sugar, coffee, laundry detergent, shampoo, corn meal, and toilet paper. Lines can string into the hundreds, as jostling consumers queue for hard-to-find items.

The drop in oil prices, which account for 95 percent of the government’s hard currency receipts, means that the government has far fewer dollars to import goods, especially in the face of mounting debt payments. Although Maduro has managed to meet all bond payments to avoid a default, imports have been slashed. And as Venezuela imports 70 percent of the goods it consumes, the result has hardly been surprising.

“I have never voted against the PSUV in my life,” said Luisa Rincon, a 45-year-old single mother of three who lives in a working-class slum of Caracas. “But all I do all day is stand in line. I get up at 4 a.m. each morning to go into the city center to stand in line, hoping that I can find enough food. And then when I can find something, I have to take a bus back home, praying that I won’t be robbed. This isn’t a life. And I am going to vote against the PSUV this time around.”

Like many voters, Rincon will be voting as much against the status quo as for the murkily defined positions of the opposition, which has sought to capitalize on the country’s economic problems — focusing on chronic shortages while giving few details as to how they would solve them.

The opposition has suffered by not having a clear leader — Leopoldo López, who tops many preference polls, is in jail for his role in last year’s protests — and pushing a sometimes-erratic message. “The opposition is benefiting in the polls because people are unhappy with the government, not because the opposition is providing ‎concrete proposals to draw voters in,” said David Smilde, a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America. “Once they start to talk about issues of economic equality, poverty, health and education, very serious differences emerge within the opposition coalition, which contains politicians and voters from the center-left to the far-right.”

MUD leaders say they will pass an amnesty law that would free López, the jailed opposition leader, and other political prisoners. They have also promised to revise agreements entered into by Maduro and Chávez over the past years, while others have called for the return of expropriated businesses to their original owners. Finally, MUD leaders have campaigned on pushing for a recall referendum against Maduro as early as next year. Maduro and the PSUV, in turn, have campaigned to voters that any opposition victory would end government social programs and have countered by promising to increase the number of pensions, academic scholarships, and public housing being granted to PSUV supporters.

Whether any of that comes to pass depends in large part on how free and fair the vote will be — and there’s good reason to believe it will be neither. International observers monitoring the vote have been marred by controversy, and the head of the CNE, Tibisay Lucena, is a known Chávez supporter who has consistently ignored MUD protests about past government campaigns. The CNE has repeatedly issued rulings against the MUD, including ones that dictated that 40 percent of all candidates had to be women just days after the opposition group selected its candidates in a primary. The agency has also designed what is believed to be a purposefully confusing ballot by placing two pro-government parties that incorporate the MUD’s Spanish name into their own.

“It’s a ploy to confuse voters,” said Salanova, the MUD candidate in Aragua. “Those parties are paid for and supported by the government with the idea they could siphon off votes.”

The Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), a grouping of South American countries, is committed to sending some 50 observers, but few believe that will guarantee a fair vote. Brazil left the delegation after Maduro vetoed its candidate. Chile and Uruguay are both boycotting the vote monitoring, which is headed by Leonel Fernández, the former president of the Dominican Republic and Chávez’s friend, because of doubts about a fair vote.

If the opposition does manage to win control of the assembly despite all these hindrances, it would be a body blow to Chavismo, the anti-imperialistic and anti-capitalistic movement founded by Chávez and carried on by Maduro. Assuming, that is, the PSUV chooses to accept a defeat. If past elections provide any clue, it won’t quietly cede power: When the government lost key governorships and city halls, Chávez and Maduro created parallel governments that usurped the functions and funds of the legitimately elected leaders. Miranda State Governor Henrique Capriles Radonski, for example, who narrowly lost the presidency to Maduro in a special election in 2013, now vies for funding with CorpoMiranda, a government entity that is overseen by the man he beat for the governorship.

This time, an opposition win at the polls could lead to the outgoing assembly passing a new law, allowing Maduro to rule by decree for the life of the new assembly. Maduro and his supporters could also attempt to strip away powers from the assembly, such as control of the budget, while trying to stave off a recall referendum or lose control of the judiciary, Electoral Council, and other theoretically autonomous state agencies. “But this will be uncharted waters for Chavismo, and it is hard to know what will happen,” warned Smilde.

Some hint of what might come if the opposition wins came this past week, when Caracas residents were treated to a display of the government’s power in the form of a long convoy of National Guard vehicles, which wound through the city’s main arteries before heading out on the sole highway to the west. All of the vehicles were newly imported from China, with the trucks carrying freshly painted “Internal Order” signs. Among them were at least 40 anti-riot vehicles, including those equipped with water cannons.

The message was not lost on those watching. “They don’t have dollars to import food or medicine, but they have the lettuce [slang for dollars] to buy equipment to suppress us,” said David López, a 62-year-old taxi driver in the central city of Maracay who witnessed the parade. “They will do anything to maintain power.”

The threat is not an abstract one: On Nov. 26, a prominent opposition leader, Luis Manuel Díaz, was assassinated while addressing a crowd in the central agrarian state of Guárico. The government subsequently claimed that he had been caught in a gun battle between two rival criminal groups, but PSUV activists subsequently suggested on talk radio that the MUD might have paid to have him killed to gain sympathy votes. And there are fears that supporters of either side could take to the streets if their party loses, especially following last year’s violent protests that claimed more than 40 lives.

Salanova scoffs at such claims. Eschewing security personnel, she has walked through many Chavista neighborhoods, talking to voters and trying to win their support. “I’m not afraid, and I don’t need bodyguards,” she said. “I want to spread my message that we can resolve our problems by working together. And I really think I can win even though it’s not a fair fight.”

Photo credit: JUAN BARRETO/AFP/Getty Images

Peter Wilson, a freelance journalist who recently left Venezuela after 24 years, is writing a book about Hugo Chávez and his failed socialist revolution.