News that Venezuela will hold a presidential election by the end of April dismayed democracy activists in the country. You might have good reason to find that sentence paradoxical. But if you do, you don’t understand Venezuela.
Why? Because the announcement was unilateral: my way or the highway. As such, it put a brutal end to a careful diplomatic dance that many people had hoped would yield an election they could believe in.
For the past three months, government and opposition representatives have been negotiating in the Dominican Republic, under international auspices, to try to agree on a set of minimal elections guarantees. Backed by diplomats from Mexico and Chile, opposition leaders had been pressing to appoint a credible new National Electoral Council that could hold an election free of the brazen abuses that have plagued recent Venezuelan elections.
By announcing an election without an agreement, the regime signaled that this isn’t going to happen. So Venezuelans should expect the upcoming vote to be another farce along the lines of the profoundly flawed municipal elections the government held last month.
In those elections, the government barely bothered to conceal a strategy of buying votes with food. It was so blatant that, in the weeks after the election, the country was convulsed by protests from people angry they hadn’t received the traditional Christmas ham many had been promised in exchange for their votes.
An election without an agreement means the National Electoral Council will stay in the hands of hard-core regime supporters who barely bother to conceal its aggressive partiality.
In one particularly galling move last year, the body declared a Socialist Party candidate the victor of a race for governor despite unambiguous evidence that he had lost — evidence produced by the council’s own voting machines. In a separate election months earlier, the IT contractor that ran the voting machines and its tallying system declared the council had conjured at least a million votes out of thin air — and was promptly fired for its trouble.
At the Dominican Republic talks, the opposition’s overriding demand was that the regime allow a credible international monitoring mission to watch over every aspect of the election — including the campaign, the voting, the tallying and the vote-count audit. The regime’s decision to move ahead with elections without an agreement almost certainly means this demand will not be met either.
Instead, the government will likely fall back on the old ruse of allowing a purely cosmetic “accompaniment” mission run by diplomats from countries allied to the regime and sock-puppet nongovernmental organizations so that the government’s propaganda arm can later claim the win was internationally monitored.
The election will take place amid hyperinflation and an absolutely shocking economic collapse that has left the value of the minimum wage below 5 cents per day. It is just not possible for a Venezuelan worker to feed his family on such a wage, leaving millions dependent on subsidized food parcel deliveries — which are organized by the ruling party along explicitly ideological lines.
Most likely, voters will once again be expected to register their ID cards at Socialist Party stands directly outside polling stations. These are, to be clear, the same ID cards that they must produce to receive food parcels. It’s true that the threat to cut off food parcels to those who refuse to back the regime isn’t usually made explicitly. But given the extreme power imbalance and people’s abject dependence on politicized food deliveries just to survive, it’s easy to see why few would dare take any chances.
It’s not every day that an election announcement has to be greeted as a severe blow to democracy, but by pushing ahead with elections under these conditions, the Maduro regime has achieved precisely that.
And yet Venezuela’s collapse is now so thoroughgoing it isn’t even safe to predict, unambiguously, that Maduro will win the upcoming election. The president is widely loathed and blamed for the country’s problems by wide majorities. In a genuinely free and fair election, he’d struggle to top 30 percent of the vote.
However tight his grip is now, campaigns are unpredictable, and doubly so in a situation of social and economic disarray as complete as Venezuela’s. No government can be entirely confident going into an election season with the currency in free fall, hunger rampant and food riots on the rise.
Considering how far Maduro has gone to tilt the playing field in his favor, it seems absurd to even consider that he could lose. But the history of Latin America is littered with authoritarian regimes that made fatal miscalculations. It wouldn’t be the first time dictators have sleepwalked into an election they were sure they could control, only to be jolted out of complacency by forces they never quite fathomed.