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President Maduro’s Likely Re-election in Breadline Venezuela
President Maduro’s Likely Re-election in Breadline Venezuela
Briefing 31 / Latin America & Caribbean

Venezuela: Dangerous Inertia

The end of street protests does not mean the end of Venezuela’s crisis. Rising economic problems and unaddressed political demands could lead to renewed violence and threaten national stability.

I. Overview

The streets of Venezuela’s major cities are now largely calm, following several months of violent clashes between opposition demonstrators, security forces and civilian gunmen that left more than 40 dead. The crisis, however, is not over. The opposition is demanding freedom for several dozen activists jailed during the unrest and an end to the threat of prosecution against more than 2,000. The underlying causes have not been addressed, and calls to restore autonomy and independence to the justice system and other key institutions have not been heeded. Living standards continue to decline due to economic recession; violent crime remains at record levels, and labour unrest and protests over poor-quality public services are often dealt with harshly. Greater international efforts are required to bring the sides back to the negotiating table, since the alternative to dialogue is likely to be further violence sooner or later.

Talks between the government and leaders of the opposition Democratic Unity (MUD) alliance, facilitated by the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) and the Vatican broke down in May 2014, when the MUD announced a “freeze” on its participation, citing repression of student protesters. The internal dissent faced by the MUD – whose executive secretary and deputy executive secretary recently resigned – and the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) has further complicated returning the parties to negotiations. The UNASUR foreign ministers charged with accompanying the process (from Brazil, Colombia and Ecuador) have not formally met with them since shortly after the talks broke down.

It remains important for the international community to play a role in facilitating the political dialogue and to suggest avenues for agreement on pending tasks. The recent appointment of a new UNASUR Secretary General should provide a renewed impetus. Furthermore, this regional organisation would greatly benefit from technical and political support from the UN system, which has much greater experience of advising on public policies and legal reforms, as it did in Venezuela in 2002. This assistance might initially focus, for example, on reinforcing the capacity of UNASUR to produce analysis and policy recommendations and, at a later stage, on helping to design a credible framework for talks. Both sides, as well as Venezuelan society at large, would benefit. The opposition clearly requires an impartial observer, able to offer reassurances, while the government would benefit by bringing in credible external actors, such as UNASUR, to bolster it in some of the difficult decisions it faces.

The most urgent of the pending tasks is to complete the appointment of respected, independent figures to the Supreme Court (TSJ), the electoral authority (CNE) and other constitutionally autonomous state bodies – a process that received a boost from the initial round of talks but now threatens to become bogged down. With the government’s popularity suffering in the crisis, the need for autonomous institutions capable of fulfilling their constitutional roles is becoming ever more critical.

As Crisis Group has argued since May, the international community – particularly UNASUR but including also the UN system – needs to:

  • press both sides to agree on a concise, viable timeframe and a trustworthy mechanism for appointing new members of the key rule-of-law institutions;
  • urge the government to release those detained for non-violent political protest;
  • call on the opposition to reassert and act on its commitment to resort exclusively to constitutional channels; and
  • redouble, through UNASUR and with the assistance of the UN system, efforts to help Venezuela move beyond its current polarisation in order to promote democracy, human rights and stability in a country still very much in crisis.

Caracas/Bogotá/Brussels, 23 September 2014

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.