The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Even winning Venezuela’s flawed ‘election’ won’t make Maduro’s grip on power safe

A man walks past graffiti painted on a fence in Caracas, Venezuela, on May 11. The graffiti reads: “I’m not going to vote.” (Carlos Jasso/Reuters)

On Sunday, Venezuela is slated to hold a presidential “election” that has richly earned its scare quotes. Hewing closely to the playbook pioneered in Russia and perfected in Nicaragua and Hungary in recent years, the vote is designed not to allow citizens to pick their leaders, but rather, to help leaders put a thin varnish of legitimacy on their authoritarian stranglehold on the state.

After the Maduro regime artlessly manipulated the outcome of not one but two elections last year, its reassurances that the vote will be fair fool no one. Its most popular opponents are either barred from standing, in jail or in exile. Major democracies in the region and around the world have already announced that they will not recognize the outcome of a vote they see as patently rigged.

In Venezuela, meanwhile, the opposition is locked in a nasty internal squabble about whether it’s even worth turning up to vote. The main traditional parties are badly split on the question.

Officially, the decision is to boycott the vote. The major opposition parties take the position that participating in a blatantly rigged election would lend legitimacy to the regime, strengthening its hold on power. A substantial minority dissents, reasoning that even if the election is unfair, forcing Maduro to steal it — and be seen to steal it — is likely to hasten its collapse. Those who support this stance have coalesced around Henri Falcón, a centrist former Chavista who has agreed to stand against Maduro.

It all shows how Sunday’s election is not like Russia’s: In stark contrast to Vladimir Putin, who remains genuinely popular with Russians, Nicolás Maduro is now a toxic brand in Venezuelan politics. Very large majorities tell pollsters they want him out of power now. One recent poll showed Maduro in third place, not only 11 points behind Falcón but behind even Javier Bertucci, a popular evangelical preacher who is also on the ballot.

One measure of the complete collapse of the regime’s democratic bona fides is that virtually no one expects these poll numbers to matter. However far behind Maduro remains in opinion surveys, virtually everyone expects him to “win” on Sunday through a combination of vote buying, coercion, blackmail and ballot-stuffing.

He has done it before, when the stakes were much lower. Why would he hold back now, with everything on the line?

The answer — which few dare to speak out loud — is that the regime may no longer be cohesive enough to successfully rig an election.

To see why, you need to appreciate just how complete Venezuela’s economic and social meltdown has been over the past year. Food and medicine shortages are long-standing, yes. But the regime used to be able to carve out a bubble of privilege for its own. Military officers and key officials were long insulated from the scarcities that hit most of the population.

But that bubble is shrinking fast.

Take the oil industry. For years, jobs at the state-owned oil company, PDVSA (Petroleum of Venezuela), were coveted for their high salaries and lavish benefits. No longer. Hyperinflation has decimated the purchasing power of PDVSA salaries shockingly quickly, leading to mass resignations as oil workers flock en masse to neighboring countries, where waiters earn in a day or two what an oil engineer earns in a year in Venezuela. The exodus has sent oil production into a terrifying oil spin, dropping from 2 million barrels a day to 1.4 million in just a few months. And with oil revenue collapsing, Maduro just doesn’t have the cash to keep other key interest groups happy.

The problem is most pressing in the military. Enlisted men increasingly go hungry, as rations in the barracks get steadily worse. Their families do, too, as military salaries are no longer enough to afford even the bare minimum. But unlike PDVSA employees, soldiers can’t just up and leave: Deserting is a crime, punishable by long prison sentences.

The result is a hothouse atmosphere. There are growing reports of arrests as military counterintelligence officials try to run down the coup plots they’re sure must be proliferating.

Maduro is no Putin. His regime’s standing with the bureaucracy and the military is precarious. For a leader so universally loathed to try to steal an election risks setting off a series of events that end with him out of power — perhaps even in jail.

And this is the main reason to believe the May 20 “election” could, in a strange sort of way, end up yielding real change: not because Maduro has any sort of democratic scruples — he doesn’t — but because he has wrecked the country so thoroughly that even his henchmen’s loyalty is in doubt.