Why has Venezuela’s opposition been unable to capitalize on the government’s massive unpopularity and its proven ability to win elections? The tragedy of Venezuela’s opposition, writes Harold Trinkunas, is that after struggling for years to forge a common strategy, it finally came together and learned how to win elections—only to have Maduro change the rules. This piece originally appeared on Foreign Affairs.
In December 2015, Venezuela’s opposition coalition, the Democratic Unity Committee (known popularly as MUD), won a landslide victory, sweeping up two-thirds of the seats for the National Assembly, the country’s legislature. Since then, positive public opinion of President Nicolás Maduro, political heir to Hugo Chavéz, has rarely reached 30 percent. Poverty has increased, affecting more than 81 percent of the population today compared to 48 percent in 2014, according to a yearly survey of living conditions conducted by three leading Venezuelan universities. Malnutrition and starvation now afflict the most vulnerable, the government has defaulted on its international debts, and the country has entered a hyperinflationary spiral.
Under these conditions, you would expect the MUD to win the upcoming 2018 presidential elections easily as voters punish the incumbent government that has led Venezuela astray. Not so. Maduro’s party swept the country’s 2017 gubernatorial races, seizing 18 of 23 governorships, and is now favored to renew his term in office. How did it come to this? Why was Venezuela’s opposition unable to capitalize on the government’s massive unpopularity and its proven ability to win elections?
The tragedy of Venezuela’s opposition is that after struggling for years to forge a common strategy, it finally came together and learned how to win elections—only to have Maduro change the rules. The government has openly manipulated the electoral system and even committed outright fraud, as its own longtime provider of electronic voting systems, Smartmatic, confirmed in the wake of the 2017 Constituent Assembly elections. Now, the presidential ambitions of its leaders, differing views on the way forward, and adept government countermeasures have fractured the opposition once again. The result is that the MUD is able to have little impact as Venezuela collapses.
WHEN VOTES NO LONGER MATTER
The coalition is fragile precisely because it is not much more than an election-winning machine. There is little underlying comity, ideological affinity, or shared policy consensus to hold the member parties together. It exists because Venezuela’s electoral rules create an incentive for regime opponents to collectively field one candidate per office to have any chance of winning an election. Otherwise, the government’s single candidate will defeat a divided opposition. To form a single nationwide ticket, the leaders of the opposition have had to check their ambitions and paper over their widely varying political platforms that run the gamut from neoliberal to socialist. International advisers and supporters from the United States, the European Union, and democracy promotion NGOs have also consistently supported this strategy. So the decision by the MUD to focus principally on winning votes is understandable. And the MUD succeeded, nearly winning the 2013 presidential elections and achieving a landslide in 2015 legislative elections.
It turns out…that winning elections in Venezuela does not matter after all.
It turns out, however, that winning elections in Venezuela does not matter after all. Maduro and his allies fear being held accountable if there is a political transition in Venezuela, either because they have engaged in massive corruption, are connected to international drug trafficking, or have committed human rights abuses. Many of these crimes potentially have an international dimension, as the sentencing of two nephews of Venezuela’s First Lady on cocaine-smuggling charges in a federal court in Manhattan in December 2017 illustrates. Members of the ruling elite are right to fear extradition to the United States if they lose power. They have thus deliberately set out to guard against any possibility of a coup or unfavorable election results through several tactics, including packing the Supreme Court with pro-regime judges and politicizing the armed forces, the police, and the oil industry. In fact, in 2017 Maduro handed over control of Venezuela’s oil industry, the source of 95 percent of the country’s export earnings, to the armed forces to ensure its loyalty, naming a National Guard officer with no previous experience in the sector, General Manuel Quevedo, as president of the state oil company PDVSA and minister of oil.
When the opposition realized that it could no longer bring about change through elections, it started to fall apart. Some leaders shifted to a strategy of civil disobedience, leading supporters—sometimes hundreds of thousands at a time—onto the streets to protest, beginning in April 2017. By the end of summer of 2017, Venezuela’s brutal security forces had killed at least 120 protesters and had arrested thousands more. The civil disobedience campaign, although unprecedented by Latin American standards, fell short. Not all opposition leaders supported it, and ultimately, for this strategy to work it needed to break the will of the military and police to repress. This did not happen.
MADURO STRIKES BACK
This is not just a story about the opposition coming up short, however. Both the MUD and its supporters in the international community underestimated the resilience and political cunning of the Maduro government. After the 2015 legislative elections, the regime worked adeptly to undermine the opposition. Maduro first vetoed all legislation passed by the opposition-controlled National Assembly, then ordered all state agencies to ignore legislative oversight, then used the Supreme Court to declare actions by the National Assembly unconstitutional, and finally built a parallel legislature—the National Constituent Assembly—under government control. Having convened the Assembly in 2017 in violation of Venezuela’s constitution, the government modified election rules for the body to award one delegate per municipality and two per state capital, thus producing a wildly malapportioned legislature. A town of 10,000 and a city of over 100,000 would potentially have the same number of delegates, theoretically providing pro-Maduro rural districts with a decisive advantage. The opposition then boycotted the National Constituent Assembly elections as illegal, resulting in a body that is 100 percent pro-Maduro. With backing from a partisan Supreme Court and this alternative legislature, Maduro has eliminated checks and balances on the executive branch.
In response, the political leaders of the parties that make up the MUD are now striking out in different directions. Four opposition governors from the Acción Democrática party elected in 2017 have recognized the regime-controlled National Constituent Assembly as legitimate. Others, such as National Assembly president Julio Borges, are engaged in renewed dialogue with the Maduro government in the Dominican Republic under the auspices of international guarantors, although the opposition has an abysmally weak hand to play. Some are calling for further sanctions by Venezuela’s neighbors and the international community, and even dog whistling in favor of even stronger actions.
Key opposition leaders also have an eye on the upcoming presidential elections, and the government is playing on these ambitions. It has jailed particularly popular opponents, most notably Leopoldo López, and banned others from office while also holding out the prospect allowing some to compete. Maduro hopes to prune the MUD into a nonthreatening Potemkin village of an opposition, one that would give an appearance of legitimacy to the world and quiet demands for him to leave office.
A MORE EFFECTIVE OPPOSITION?
The authoritarian nature of the Maduro regime aside, the MUD’s fragility has led it to pass up opportunities to promote the positive vision of the Venezuela it had aspired to create. After it took control of the National Assembly in 2015, for example, the MUD might have used its legislative powers to push through oil-sector, military, and welfare reform. Passing legislation is costly and requires the expenditure of political capital. This makes it a particularly credible way of telling both the electorate and moderates in the government (whose acquiescence would be needed to transition to a more democratic regime) what future the opposition is committed to. The stress of legislating, however, may have simply been too much to bear for an elections-focused coalition.
Instead, the opposition has become progressively irrelevant as the country is entering a hyperinflationary period, oil production is declining rapidly, and poverty and hunger are exploding. In the face of the Maduro regime’s reluctance to receive assistance or advice, the international community also finds itself with few credible policy instruments at hand. The sad reality is that Maduro has a firmer grip on power than at any time since his election in 2013.
The tragedy for Venezuela is that, as difficult as the road has been thus far, what lies ahead is even harder, which is to build an opposition that is fit to the task at hand. With free and fair elections unlikely so long as Maduro retains power, there is at least no longer the incentive for the opposition to incorporate every last potential regime critic, no matter how craven or opportunistic, into its ranks. In shared difficulty, truly committed democrats in Venezuela may yet forge a more effective opposition, one with a positive policy program born out of serious debate and shared hardship. Moreover, with Maduro facing a hungry citizenry, an empty larder, and little access to international financing, Venezuela’s crisis may yet provide new opportunities for a renewed opposition to assert itself.