"You have a house, and you know there are thieves around. If the thieves are going to break into your house, you should at the very least lock it and surround it with electric wire. That way they have to do something. If you leave your doors open, you are making it easier."
María was going to vote in Venezuela’s gubernatorial elections, scheduled for Sunday, October 15 of this year. On the preceding Thursday, she found out her center had been changed: instead of voting at a school near her home in Guarenas, she would have to vote in Vista Hermosa, a barrio atop a nearby mountain. The change concerned María: she had never heard of the place, and worried it might be difficult to reach and unsafe for her to visit.
The outskirts of Caracas, where she lives, teem with makeshift homes of red brick and tin roofs. Known as barrios, they house the majority of the city’s poor, many of whom migrated from rural areas in search of better living conditions. The persistent precariousness of these residences is a testament to Venezuela’s systemic inequality, which has concentrated oil wealth in the hands of relatively few. It was such glaring injustice that catapulted Hugo Chávez to power in 1998, on the promise to redistribute the country’s riches and build a participative democracy. During his administration, high oil prices translated into a considerable reduction in the poverty rate but relatively modest improvements in structural poverty. Even though Chávez’s diagnosis was correct, his solutions were inefficient and fell short of achieving systemic change. Social programs were hindered by corruption and clientelism, and antagonism toward the private sector led to greater dependence on oil. By the time of Chávez’s death in 2013, oil prices had fallen and poverty was approaching levels prior to his presidency.
His successor, Nicolás Maduro, has presided over the greatest economic and social crisis in Venezuela’s history. The numbers are overwhelming: 82 percent of the population is below the poverty line and 90 percent of households report having insufficient income to eat. This year, the economy is expected to contract by 12 percent and the inflation rate to reach 1,600 percent. The government’s approval rating has taken a hit: from 57 percent in 2012 to 24 percent this month. In the absence of popular support, however, the regime exerts control.
Three days before the governor elections, the National Electoral Council reallocated 273 voting centers, affecting over 715,000 voters. The majority of those centers were in middle-class neighborhoods that had historically favored the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD), a coalition of political parties formed in 2008 to oppose Chávez’s United Socialist Party (PSUV) in elections. Aside from creating logistical problems for the opposition, transferring those voters to other centers provided the government with greater control over electoral conditions.
When María arrived at her old voting center in Guarenas, vans full of people were coming back from Vista Hermosa. Visibly shaken, the passengers advised those waiting to be transported over against voting. Pro-government armed groups, known locally as colectivos, had prevented their vehicles from reaching the electoral center. Heeding their advice, a group of voters decided to go home. Another group, including María, decided to take the risk.
A van dropped them off at the base of the hill. The trail up to the voting center was steep and blocked by armed men from the colectivos, but the group decided to charge ahead. This time, they were allowed to pass. María recalls hearing discussions between government campaign members, “because the order was not to let [them] vote.”
The electoral center was too small for the number of voters that had been transferred to it, and several of its voting machines failed. In some stations the queues went on for hours. However, people didn’t leave until they had voted. “I think Venezuelans are fighting,” María told the Independent. “But it is a battle of David versus Goliath. [The government] has the infrastructure... they have everything. If they were truly confident, I doubt they would be implementing all these strategies.”
María’s story is not unique, nor is it especially tragic. Violence was registered in 60 percent of voting centers overseen by the Electoral Observation Network, one of only two independent organizations authorized to monitor the elections. According to the MUD, such incidents may have affected over 350,000 voters. However, violence was just one card in the deck of government coercion, which went into play well before October 15.
Regional elections should have taken place last year, but the Electoral Council had delayed them until further notice. After losing the National Assembly to the opposition in 2015, the regime did everything possible to avoid the ballot box. Last October, for example, it halted a referendum drive that could have recalled Maduro mid-way through his term. Were it not for international pressure and sustained street protests, these elections may have never taken place. But when they did, it was on the government’s terms.
The vote was originally scheduled for December, but the Electoral Council moved it up by two months to reduce the amount of time the opposition had to prepare electoral logistics. As a result, 39 percent of the centers monitored by the Electoral Observation Network didn’t have accredited witnesses from Venezuela's multiple political parties and 44 percent did not follow counting protocols. And for the first time in Venezuela’s history, people were not marked with semi-permanent ink to prevent them from voting multiple times. When combined with the failures in supervision, that change might explain why there were 1,600,000 ballots cast where fingerprints did not coincide with the individuals who voted. But even if the magnitude of abuse is enraging, it’s not surprising. Therein lies the conundrum of this electoral fraud: it was to be expected.
The Electoral Council has been controlled by government affiliates since 2006, when there ceased to be international witnesses to elections. However, the ruling party was popular enough at the time its electoral victories could not be explained by irregularities alone. Chávez could fend off accusations of growing authoritarianism by citing the number of elections his government had held and won, even if those elections weren’t always free and transparent.
Things changed after his death in 2013. No longer supported by the majority, the ruling party had to further tamper with electoral conditions in order to remain in power. In fact, the opposition claims Maduro’s victory that year was fraudulent, given his slim margin of victory and the number of irregularities reported on election day. Proving that would have required a comprehensive audit by the Electoral Council, which was denied. In its absence, fraud can only be proven if the government directly manipulates electoral results. That was not the case in 2013, but it was in this year’s elections for a National Constituent Assembly (ANC).
In July, the regime held elections for a legislative body that would supersede all branches of government and be tasked with drafting a new constitution. According to Venezuelan law, it should have first held a referendum to see if the majority of voters desired a new constitution. The opposition decided to boycott the vote, so only ruling party candidates ran for seats. Still, the Electoral Council announced an impressive turnout of 8.1 million voters. Days later, the company that supplied the Council with voting machines claimed the results had been altered by at least one million votes.
Considering these instances of electoral fraud, why should the opposition participate in the governor elections? The dilemma divided the coalition in the months leading up to the vote, and it has nearly torn it apart in the vote's aftermath.
Elections in Venezuela were not a handover from the government, but, rather, the product of sustained popular and international pressure. Between March and July, the country was engulfed by the largest and bloodiest demonstrations of its history, with protesters decrying the assumption of legislative powers by the Supreme Justice Tribunal. The regime met the protesters with its entire repressive arsenal: expired tear gas, rubber bullets fired at the head, freely-operating colectivos, and sometimes even the rifles of military personnel. By July, 114 people had died and over 1,900 injured in the protests, many of them under the age of 18.
The eyes of the international community finally settled on Venezuela. On July 16, over seven million people voted in an informal referendum rejecting the Constituent Assembly and demanding free and transparent elections. Even though the government agreed to hold governor elections, it refused to change the Electoral Council. The opposition was faced with a dilemma: on the one hand, it risked losing political spaces to the regime; on the other, legitimating a fraudulent process.
After much hesitation, the MUD decided to participate in the elections. The coalition reasoned that one of two things would happen: either the opposition would win by a margin so wide that all of the government’s tricks would fall short, or the regime would commit a fraud so obvious that it would merit international condemnation. Both scenarios assumed a high turnout among opposition voters, underestimating the influence of the more radical factions of the opposition calling for abstention.
Darío, an engineering student at Venezuela's Catholic University, was among those who abstained. He disagreed with putting a hold on street protests to participate in elections without first changing the Electoral Council. Aside from lessening pressure on the government, that would set the opposition up for defeat. “They are smarter than us at this, they have been cheating all their lives,” he told the Independent. “We can’t win at their game: trying to discover their tricks and find ways to demonstrate them.”
When election results rolled in Sunday night, opposition voters were forced to reckon with his argument. The defeat was staggering: the ruling party had taken home 18 out of 23 states and won 54 percent of the popular vote. When compared with the 2015 elections, it had gained over 377 thousand votes and the MUD had lost over 2.37 million.
The initial reaction was surprise. Polling agencies had predicted the opposition would win at least half of the governorships, and it seemed impossible for a government with such a low approval rating to win the majority of the popular vote. Even more startling, it had won in urban districts the opposition considered its strongholds. Shock was soon displaced by anger, as reports of violence and electoral irregularities emerged. Then came self-doubt, and the suspicion that the opposition had it coming.
Still, the government’s victory cannot be explained by electoral irregularities alone. Part of the reason the regime fared better in these elections was because it employed an ambitious strategy of social mobilization and control.
Last year, Maduro launched a program to distribute subsidized food and staples through communal committees, known as CLAP. The committees first performed a population census, which recorded the number of program beneficiaries in each community, where they lived, and what they needed. That information allowed the government to create the carnet de la patria, an electronic identity document that regulates access to social programs. Venezuelan economist Michael Penfold argues that the cards could allow the regime to exercise control over program recipients. “If they have not been renovated, people’s access to their main source of subsidized food is limited,” he wrote in ProDavinci. “Renewing that access might depend upon the fulfillment of expectations about the social and political behavior of the beneficiary, especially when the government is facing an electoral event.”
Indeed, the system was put to the test during the governor elections. In poor urban areas, the government set up stations to renew the carnet de la patria close to voting centers. According to multiple testimonies, renewal depended upon electoral participation. Rosa, 53, told Caracas Chronicles that her neighborhood’s communal council had threatened that, “if you didn’t vote, you wouldn’t get your CLAP bag.” And she would rather be safe.
Since both processes are electronic and were developing in close proximity, there is a possibility that program beneficiaries were scared of voting against the government. Word on the street is that the regime has access to election data: “The opposition says it’s secret, but chavistas suggest they know,” said Carlos, 37, in an interview with Caracas Chronicles. “It’s a risk; I work in the public sector and there’s no way I’ll put my work at risk right now. If it’s hard to live with my salary. Imagine without it.”
Government coercion and control coincided with high abstention rates among the opposition. Even though electoral irregularities may end up accounting for a large portion of that abstention, they will never be able to explain it in full. The opposition’s defeat in the governor elections had a great deal to do with its internal dynamics.
The coalition’s discourse leading up to the vote was weak and hesitant: party leaders changed their stances repeatedly, and they failed to provide an explanation as to why the elections were important. For people like Darío, who had risked their lives in the protests, it seemed like the MUD was capitulating to the regime. However, they did the government a favor by abstaining. The regime never wanted them to vote: aside from creating physical and procedural barriers, it tried to discourage participation. According to political scientist Juan Manuel Trak, “the purpose of many of those practices was to create the perception that voting cannot transform reality.” Additionally, the government insisted that participating in the elections implied recognizing the Constituent Assembly.
The best possible scenario for the regime was a low opposition turnout: enough participation to validate the electoral process but not enough to make it lose. Electoral abstention has proven to be self-destructive unless supported by all parties and part of a larger political strategy, as was the case in the elections to the Constituent Assembly. However, so was going to elections without a coherent narrative and a unified leadership.
The Achilles’ heel of the coalition is division in the face of government attacks. María believes discussions about political strategy should take place aguas adentro: if opposition leaders debate each other in public, the regime will find weaknesses to separate them. Unfortunately, that is precisely what has occurred since the elections. By demanding elected governors be sworn in before the Constituent Assembly, the government has created a fracture between parties that still believe in the electoral route and are willing to make concessions and those that demand institutional change before negotiating or participating in another election.
The MUD is likely to be replaced or profoundly transformed in the coming months. Meanwhile, the regime will work to create an environment that allows it to hold elections without risk of defeat. There is a fine line to walk if the opposition hopes to avoid getting trapped in an electoral dead-end. With municipal elections scheduled for December 2017 and presidential elections due in 2018, it cannot afford to make another mistake. One thing is certain: divided, it cannot win.
ORIANA VAN PRAAG B’19.5 misses her home.