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Dangerous Uncertainty ahead of Venezuela’s Elections
Dangerous Uncertainty ahead of Venezuela’s Elections
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
President Maduro’s Likely Re-election in Breadline Venezuela
President Maduro’s Likely Re-election in Breadline Venezuela

Dangerous Uncertainty ahead of Venezuela’s Elections

Uncertainty over President Hugo Chávez’s health deepens Venezuela’s fragility ahead of presidential elections in October and sparks fears of instability.

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Executive Summary

Uncertainty over President Hugo Chávez’s health adds to Venezuela’s fragility in the run-up to October’s presidential election. Amid deep polarisation, his illness overshadows the campaign, while the personalised nature of his rule, weakened institutions, and high levels of criminal violence bode ill for stability even beyond the polls. Brazen violation of the constitution would probably require army support, which not even the president can bank on; regional powers, too, would eye such action warily. But with much at stake, upheaval, even a violent political crisis, remain dangerous possibilities. Political leaders should condemn violence and pledge publicly to respect the constitution – whatever lies ahead. Venezuela’s partners in the region should press for international observation and signal clearly they will not condone unconstitutional acts.

The coming months could prove to be Hugo Chávez’s toughest yet. The opposition is united behind a presidential candidate. Its youthful contender, Henrique Capriles – like Chávez – has never lost an election. His moderation, a far cry from opposition tactics of the past, should resonate with swing voters. Moreover, elections in Venezuela, despite Chávez’s narrowing of political space, are not easy to rig. The opposition has won before and in the most recent, the 2010 parliamentary elections, its share of the popular vote matched that of the ruling party.

But a presidential contest against Chávez is a different matter. Under normal conditions, he would likely win. He is a formidable campaigner and still enjoys strong emotional ties to many Venezuelans, especially his poor base. He also has loyal institutions and a powerful state media machine, and openly uses the public purse for campaign purposes, notably by dispensing largesse through social welfare programs. Even opposition loyalists admit a healthy Chávez in full campaign swing would be almost unbeatable.

However, the president faces not only Capriles, but also cancer, which could pose a graver threat to his reign. Only his doctors and close family know the prognosis, but the illness has already required extended absences for treatments in Cuba and has thus far kept him off the campaign trail. The ruling party, with no clear succession mechanism or obvious heir – certainly none that could easily defeat Capriles – is jittery: Chavismo would be in trouble without Chávez. Many around him have much to lose, and while the party maintains public unity, speculation about infighting and jostling for influence behind the scenes is rife. The recently-appointed Council of State, a body of top presidential advisers, could possibly become a mechanism through which to negotiate succession if Chávez’s health fails, but its creation does not appear to have calmed nerves.

The president’s sickness threatens not only his party but also October’s vote and even the country’s stability. His rule is highly personalised, with power concentrated in his office and checks and balances steadily eroded. Institutions are ill-equipped to manage a transition or contain conflict. Politics are polarised, society divided. The proliferation of weapons and of pro-government armed groups offers opportunities for stoking violence. Indeed, sparks have already hit the campaign; shots were fired at an opposition rally in Cotiza, a Caracas suburb in early March. The president’s fiery rhetoric does little to discourage such incidents.

Many in Venezuela, including in the Capriles camp, stress a major breakdown of order is unlikely. Chávez has always rooted his legitimacy in the ballot box and promises to accept the result in October. The electoral authorities are, perhaps, more resistant to his meddling than other institutions. The opposition swears there will be no witch hunts if it wins; if it loses, it appears to have little stomach for a fight, particularly if the vote is clean. Many citizens are tired of confrontation. While senior generals are loyal to the president, with the defence minister suspected of ties to drug-trafficking, the armed forces’ middle and lower ranks would not necessarily follow them into blatant violations of the constitution. Nor would regional powers condone a power grab or welcome Venezuela’s slide from flawed democracy into turmoil or dictatorship.

But Chávez’s illness takes Venezuela onto unknown – and unpredictable – terrain. At stake is not only his rule but also a model of governance that many Venezuelans perceive to serve their interests. One scenario, were the president or a late stand-in defeated, would see the ruling party seek to force the electoral authorities to suppress results or itself stir up violence as a pretext to retain power by extraordinary means. A second, especially if the president’s health should decline rapidly, would have it delay the vote – perhaps through a decision by the partisan judiciary – in order to buy time to select and drum up support for a replacement. Either scenario could stimulate opposition protests and escalating confrontation with government loyalists.

The prospect of upheaval thus cannot be discounted. Political leaders, especially the president, should tone down their rhetoric and condemn any violence. Venezuela’s constitution, passed by Chávez himself, provides for all contingencies, and all political leaders, authorities and the armed forces should pledge publicly to adhere to it.

Caracas/Bogotá/Brussels, 26 June 2012

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro speaks during a campaign rally in Caracas, Venezuela on 4 May 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

President Maduro’s Likely Re-election in Breadline Venezuela

As tens of thousands of Venezuelans stream into neighbouring countries, President Nicolás Maduro appears set to win elections on 20 May. In this Q&A, Crisis Group’s Senior Analyst for the Andes Phil Gunson looks ahead to the vote and its aftermath and explains why the crisis is likely to deepen.

What is at stake in the 20 May elections?

These elections are for the presidency of the republic and for regional legislatures in each of Venezuela’s 23 states. The president is both head of state and of government, as well as commander-in-chief of the armed forces.

President Nicolás Maduro was elected in 2013 to complete the six-year term of his predecessor, Hugo Chávez, after Chávez died of cancer. That term ends in early 2019, but the government brought forward the elections – which would normally be held in December – to take advantage of the Venezuelan opposition’s weaknesses and divisions. In doing so, it derailed negotiations, primarily over election conditions, which were underway in the Dominican Republic in the presence of international facilitators.

Who are the main candidates and what are their chances?

President Maduro’s main challenger is former state Governor Henri Falcón, leader of the centre-left Avanzada Progresista party. Falcón, who was once an ally of Chávez, has broken with the Democratic Unity (MUD) opposition alliance, which has called for a boycott. A dark horse candidate is Javier Bertucci, an evangelical pastor with no background in politics.

Early opinion polls suggested Falcón was leading the races, though Bertucci has lately been eating into his support. President Maduro himself enjoys the approval of around a quarter of the electorate.

Maduro’s control of key institutions, including the electoral authority (CNE), the courts and the army, as well as the massive disparity in campaign finance, make him virtually unassailable.

Those polls are unlikely to provide an accurate projection of election results, however, particularly if opposition voters heed their leaders’ call to shun the vote. In reality, Falcón’s chances of winning are remote. Maduro’s control of key institutions, including the electoral authority (CNE), the courts and the army, as well as the massive disparity in campaign finance, make him virtually unassailable – this despite the fact that the economy has collapsed since he took office. Venezuelans are fleeing the country by the hundreds of thousands, largely because of hyperinflation (currently running at around 13,000 per cent a year) and critical scarcities of food, medicine and cash.

How credible is the opposition claim that the election is rigged?

Elections in Venezuela have been marred for well over a decade by campaign violations on the part of government candidates, which go unpunished by the CNE. These violations mostly involve the use of state resources – personnel, vehicles and buildings, as well as public funds – for campaigning and an overwhelming imbalance in media coverage. The president, for example, broadcasts campaign activities on live television and radio, which all channels are often obliged to transmit simultaneously (so-called cadenas, or “chains”).

By bringing the election date forward, the government ensured the opposition had no time to hold primaries.

The two most popular opposition leaders, Henrique Capriles and Leopoldo López, are both barred from running, and the CNE has cancelled the registration of many parties, including those of Capriles and López, as well as the opposition MUD alliance itself. By bringing the election date forward, the government ensured the opposition had no time to hold primaries.

Moreover, the early date also means a president-elect will wait more than eight months for his inauguration. Even in the highly unlikely event of an opposition win, the government would thus have plenty of time to manipulate the rules – for example by stripping the presidency of some powers – which it can now do through the new National Constituent Assembly. This body, elected last year in polls the opposition also boycotted, comprises exclusively pro-government figures. For practical purposes it has replaced the opposition-controlled parliament and is deemed to have authority over all branches of government, including the presidency.

Given that the Venezuelan opposition has participated even in unfair elections before, what has prompted the boycott this time?

Venezuelan election monitors, as well as a large part of the opposition, say conditions are significantly worse this time. For example, the electronic voting system, subjected to a series of opposition-scrutinised audits, previously ensured that votes cast were properly counted. In last October’s gubernatorial elections, however, the opposition produced documentary proof that the vote count had been altered in one state. The CNE has failed to respond to the complaint. The private company, Smartmatic, that supplied the voting machines has withdrawn after alleging that the CNE inflated turnout in the Constituent Assembly elections by over a million votes. Moreover, an opposition governor-elect was barred from taking office for refusing to be sworn in by the Constituent Assembly. (Falcón has said he too would reject that condition were he to win.)

President Maduro and chavismo retain a genuine base of support, thanks largely to the lingering effect of Hugo Chávez’s charisma and the welfare programs that he promoted.

By announcing the election date with less than twelve weeks’ notice, the government also ensured there was not enough time to carry out all the pre-election checks and audits intended to safeguard the integrity of the process. The election register has not been audited since 2007, and the process of updating it for this election was carried out practically in secret. Hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans who have left the country are impeded from voting by restrictive rules and consular staff who place obstacles in their way. The indelible ink used in past elections to prevent multiple voting will not be employed on this occasion.

Even so, millions of genuine votes are predicted to be cast for Maduro. What is the explanation?

President Maduro and chavismo retain a genuine base of support, thanks largely to the lingering effect of Hugo Chávez’s charisma and the welfare programs that he promoted. That said, polls also suggest that most of the voters who do not support him would like to see Maduro leave office immediately.

Many Venezuelans appear likely to vote for the incumbent out of fear or necessity. These include government employees fearful of losing their jobs as well as the millions of recipients of subsidised food handouts and other benefits. The government demands that voters carry a “homeland card” (carnet de la patria) to be scanned at special booths outside polling stations run by the ruling party. The card’s QR code contains personal details about the benefits each individual receives, and the threat – implicit or explicit– is that these benefits will be cut if voters do not do as the government wants. According to polling evidence, almost half of Venezuelan homes receive food rations regularly, and close to six out of ten voters do not believe their vote is secret.

More than a dozen of its hemispheric neighbours, known as the Lima Group, have said they will not recognise the result of the election.

What has been the reaction in the region and internationally?

The Venezuelan government has never been more isolated. More than a dozen of its hemispheric neighbours, known as the Lima Group, have said they will not recognise the result of the election, and Washington has taken a similar position. The European Union (EU) and many of its allies have said the election will not be free, fair or transparent and the EU has declined to send observers, as has the United Nations. The U.S., Canada, the EU and others have adopted sanctions, largely targeted against leading government figures, and called for a restoration of democracy. One of the MUD’s arguments for not taking part in the elections has been the refusal of many foreign governments to recognise the poll’s legitimacy.

For their part, Maduro’s allies – who include Russia, China and Cuba, as well as some smaller Latin American and Caribbean nations – have objected to what they see as interference in Venezuela’s internal affairs.

Are we likely to see a rerun of last year’s violent protests if Maduro is declared the winner?

That seems unlikely. Falcón may simply recognise Maduro’s victory. It would be difficult for him to complain that the election was rigged after claiming the rest of the opposition was wrong to take that position from the start. On the other hand, he could argue that the government committed electoral crimes such as vote-buying, which he has asked the Supreme Court to prohibit. Either way, opposition supporters are demoralised and demobilised; many have lost faith in opposition leaders and they will not easily take to the streets. They have seen very clearly the cost of dissent, both in the repression of last year’s protests and in the brutal response earlier this year to a small armed rebellion. The rebels were apparently executed after offering to surrender. Recent polls suggest that hundreds of thousands are considering joining the mass exodus.

If Maduro is re-elected, what hope is there for resolving the crisis?

Maduro has no plan to resolve what has become a profound economic and social crisis; in fact, he has promised to double down on the very policies that brought it about. The government, for example, has “temporarily” taken over the country’s biggest private bank, Banesco, and forced the only remaining manufacturer of car batteries, a private company, to slash its prices. Maduro proposes to resolve problems like the critical shortage of paper money and U.S. financial sanctions by replacing the Venezuelan currency, the bolívar, with “cryptocurrency” – dubbed the Petro – for an ever-growing list of transactions.

The crisis is so severe that it could provoke either friction within the ruling civilian-military alliance or social breakdown on a much greater scale. Oil exports, on which the country is critically dependent, are falling fast, thanks to declining production and the fear that creditors may seize tankers on the high seas. Hyperinflationary crises are inherently unstable. It seems likely that the longer the government is unable or unwilling to tackle Venezuela’s crisis, the more likely it is to provoke further instability, potentially even among civilian or military elites. Dozens of arrests of military officers in recent months point to discontent in the armed forces, although so far no leader – civilian or military – has emerged within chavismo with the strength to mount a serious challenge to Maduro.

Another potential source of conflict is the deteriorating relationship with Colombia ... The complex web of competing armed groups on the two countries’ common border is a possible flashpoint.

Washington refuses to rule out military intervention. Such an intervention for now appears unlikely, but would almost certainly create enormous instability. The vast majority of regional governments flatly oppose such an idea and even floating it plays into the hands of Maduro, who argues that his opponents are proxies of Western imperialism. Another potential source of conflict is the deteriorating relationship with Colombia, which is in the throes of its own presidential election. The complex web of competing armed groups on the two countries’ common border is a possible flashpoint.

Crisis Group believes that a stable and workable solution can only come through negotiations, but the breakdown of talks in Santo Domingo earlier this year means that any resumption would have to be preceded by a commitment from the government to act in good faith and accept a broad agenda of political, institutional and economic reform. Convincing the government to embrace talks will most likely require continued international pressure, combined with clear signals as to the steps that would have to be taken for sanctions to be lifted.