U.S. officials and Latin American leaders are awaiting Venezuela’s parliamentary elections this weekend with trepidation, worried that instead of defusing the country’s deep tensions, the vote could instead detonate a new crisis.
With Venezuela’s petroleum-based economy projected to contract 10 percent this year and citizens suffering chronic shortages of basic goods, the ruling socialist party is expected to lose control of the legislature for the first time since the late Hugo Chávez was elected president in 1998.
Such a defeat would be an unprecedented blow to the movement known as “Chavismo” that rose to power by electoral means yet views its uninterrupted rule as part of a “revolution” that dismisses, at least rhetorically, democratic norms such as alternating power and divided government.
Defiant statements by President Nicolás Maduro and other top Venezuelan officials have offered few assurances to those looking for signs that the government is ready to compromise with the opposition. An opposition candidate in central Venezuela was slain by a gunman Wednesday at a rally, an ominous sign to many of what may be in store on Election Day.
“They are at a dramatic crossroads,” said a senior U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the Venezuelan government is quick to label any public criticism by foreigners an act of “meddling.”
“Chavismo expected it would be the dominant political force for decades, but it has discovered that in democratic societies, people hold leaders to account,” said the U.S. official. “Ideology and the image of Chávez isn’t enough to maintain a hold on power.”
Maduro is not on the ballot, and his term doesn’t expire until 2019. Still, if the opposition takes control of parliament, it could mount a recall attempt against him as soon as next year.
The leading polls show Maduro’s United Socialist Party headed for steep losses. But with few international observers expected to monitor the election, anything other than an opposition win is likely to produce charges of fraud.
The presence of credible international observers was critical in past elections because Venezuela’s government and opposition leaders are barely on speaking terms. During his 14-year rule, which ended with his death in 2013, Chávez was arguably the biggest beneficiary of missions by groups such as the Carter Center and the Organization of American States (OAS), which stamped his victories as fair.
This time there will be no such referee. The Carter Center closed its Venezuela offices in August. The government has rejected OAS offers for an observer mission.
The opposition has little faith in the neutrality of the country’s election officials, and the leading international observer delegation, from South America’s Unasur bloc, will be headed by a longtime Chávez ally, former Dominican president Leonel Fernández.
The Unasur delegation has yet to convince the opposition that it can be an impartial watchdog. Regional power Brazil pulled out of the delegation last month after the Maduro government did not accept its delegate, former defense minister Nelson Jobim, even though the government of President Dilma Rousseff has long been a Chávez ally. The Unasur group will also lack delegates from Uruguay and Chile.
Maduro insists that the polls are wrong and that his party will prevail. Elias Jaua, a top Chavista official, said last week that his government would never make a pact with “the bourgeoisie,” the socialists’ slur for members of the opposition.
“The restoration of capitalism and neoliberalism in Venezuela will not happen,” Jaua said.
It is this type of all-or-nothing rhetoric, combined with the notion that any electoral setback would be an unacceptable stain on the legacy of Chávez, that worries observers.
“A lot of people are going to think there will be foul play, so not having more international observation is something that will hurt the government more than anyone, especially if there is surprise at the results,” said David Smilde, a Venezuela expert at the Washington Office on Latin America.
The nightmare scenario is a return to the street violence of early 2014 that followed Maduro’s narrow presidential victory. Dozens of Venezuelans on both sides of the political divide were killed, and opposition leaders defused the tensions by urging supporters to put aside their anger and organize ahead of the Dec. 6 vote. But that rage could erupt again.
Analysts have cautioned against expecting a sweeping opposition victory, noting that the country’s electoral map favors rural districts where the Chávez movement is still strong. The government also freely uses state resources to promote its candidates and bring its supporters to the polls.
Luis Almagro, the head of the Organization of American States and a former foreign minister of Uruguay, sent a strongly worded, 19-page letter to Venezuela’s top election official earlier this month, urging her to protect democratic rule and ensure transparency.
Several opposition candidates have been disqualified or jailed, some ballots appear designed to confuse voters and the illegal use of government resources by governing party candidates continues unchecked, he protested.
“You are responsible for fair elections — you are their guarantor,” he wrote to Tibisay Lucena, the head of Venezuela’s electoral commission. Almagro added that “Venezuela has obligations to democracy beyond her own jurisdiction.”
Officials in Caracas blasted the letter as “a threat to the people of Venezuela,” with Maduro labeling Almagro “garbage.”
Francisco Guerrero, the OAS secretary for the strengthening of democracy, said in an interview that international observers are merely trying to ensure that the election doesn’t make a desperate situation in Caracas even worse.
“Both the government and the opposition have a political responsibility to maintain peaceful coexistence,” he said.
Venezuela’s opposition has run a stronger campaign than in previous election cycles, analysts say, with a disciplined message and a more concerted effort to campaign in areas long considered Chavista strongholds.
The government can still count on support from fervent Chávez devotees, and Maduro has warned them that any vote for the opposition would be tantamount to a “betrayal” of the late leader’s legacy, destined to leave them “alone, alone, alone.”
Polls suggest a lot of former Chávez followers are not buying it.
“People are really tired and fed up, and Maduro doesn’t have any new ideas, so they don’t see any light at the end of the tunnel,” said Smilde, a Tulane University sociologist who has conducted research in Venezuela for more than 20 years.
Several key figures close to Maduro are targets of U.S. probes into drug trafficking and large-scale corruption, and U.S. officials say their survival may depend on keeping the opposition out of power. Two of the president’s relatives are facing charges in U.S. federal court for allegedly conspiring to smuggle 800 kilos of cocaine into the United States.
With as much as 95 percent of Venezuela’s income generated from petroleum exports and no recovery in sight for oil prices, Smilde and others note that it might not be such a bad thing for Maduro, politically speaking, to share power with an opposition-controlled parliament. If he does not, he will continue to bear full responsibility for the country’s economic debacle.