Maduro’s gamble: all or nothing

Chavismo has from the outset been able to play the mathematics of the electoral game to its advantage, resulting in over-representation and in many cases hegemony. In 1999, it won 125 out of 131 seats (in the 25 July elections for a National Constituent Assembly) with only 65 per cent of the vote, while the opposition, with 22.1 per cent, only won six seats. 

Since then it has used various methods to achieve the same results in elections. Changes to electoral boundaries (gerrymandering - redesigning constituencies for the benefit of a political party) combined with mechanisms for monitoring the voters (observation missions) and the indiscriminate use of public funds to finance electoral campaigns has resulted in wins nearly every time.

The high world oil prices under President Chávez’s administration from 2004 till his death enabled it to grant direct and indirect subsidies which created a sense of well-being. The fall in petrol prices from 2011 revealed the economic disaster that was unfolding.

In 1999, Venezuela’s balance of payments consisted of 76.33 per cent of oil revenues and 23.67 per cent of other exports. When the price of oil started to fall, oil made up 96 per cent of the balance of payments, a level of concentration not seen since the 1940s.

To add to this, the oil price crashed, caused in part by a lack of investment and in part by incompetence. Oil production fell from 2.3 million barrels a day in 2003 to about 2 million barrels a day, according to OPEC and the International Energy Agency (IEA).

This was accompanied by the deterioration and stagnation of many of the plants that made up Venezuela’s principal oil refineries. As production started grinding to a halt in some of these plants, Venezuela found itself unable to produce 95 octane petrol. This in turn led to the huge imports of petrol in the last several years. 

This was the background to the 2015 legislative elections. And the rules of over-representation that had allowed chavismo to win and to exert hegemonic power since 1999 worked in favour of the opposition.

From that moment, the government of Nicolás Maduro began its frantic race towards the elimination of the National Assembly on the one hand and the suspension of any electoral process on the other. It had the support of the Supreme Court of Justice, the National Electoral Council and other public bodies which were singled out – in most cases without meeting the subjective or objective requirements for that – as the staunchest allies. 

The gradual suppression of the National Assembly was achieved through over 60 decisions handed down by the Supreme Court since December 2015, like an on-going coup d’état. But it was rulings 155 and 156 – which took away all the National Assembly’s constitutional powers, handing them to the Supreme Court which could in turn delegate them to the President - which were seen by theinternational community as a clear coup d’état. The two rulings were “cosmetically” tidied up, but in essence remained the same.

The suspension of the elections is the clearest sign yet of the regime’s fear of holding free elections. All the opinion polls show that chavismo is set to get between 15 and 20 per cent of the vote. That is not a big enough share of the vote to win any free election. That was why, using the National Electoral Council and the courts, the recall referendum that was to have been held in 2016 was suspended. But it was also why the gubernatorial elections due to be held at the end of 2016 were never called; nor were the mayoral elections which should take place at the end of 2017.

New game rules, constitutional fraud

The majority opposition, with its continuous demands for free and fair elections, has caused the ugliest face of chavismo to be revealed. The Platform for Democratic Unity (MUD) has maintained unity, and has followed a policy of non-violent struggle.

Since the beginning of April this year a massive street movement has emerged, with marches, protests and other forms of non-violent action. Faced with thousands of people out on the streets, the regime had only one response: violent repression. It is both directly by the National Guard and the National Police, and indirectly through the use of paramilitary groups, armed by the government since 2002 and known as “collectives”, who enforce repression by means of firearms. 

The result is that by the end of May, 60 people have been murdered, over 4,000 wounded, about 3,000 have been detained, including 1,600 who are still in detention.

However, in light of the public criticism of this repression by the Public Prosecutor, Luisa Ortega Díaz, who has instructed prosecutors to only charge those detained if there is genuine proof they have actually committed a crime, the government has turned to using military courts to try the detainees. To date over 300 civilians have been tried in an expedited and unconstitutional manner by the military courts. 

The fact is that the government has decided, again, to change the rules of the game. It is using electoral game theory to carry out constitutional fraud. That is to say, it is going to call for a Constituent Assembly, without holding a referendum beforehand, to reform the Constitution.

The delegates to the Constituent Assembly will be elected partly on the basis of interest groups – students, workers, communes, people with disabilities among others – and partly representing the municipalities, all with equal representation regardless of their population.

The government hopes with these rules to control both candidates and voters, with the aim of ensuring hegemony.

This style of election overrides the principle of a universal ballot - of one person, one vote and of majority rule. Municipalities with a population of 2,000 can elect the same number of representatives as one that has a population of hundreds of thousands. And with that electoral system, with no way of checking the lists of the people in each sector, the government aims to control who votes. 

For the government, this is a game of “all or nothing”. By imposing its constituent assembly, getting it approved without a referendum, thereby adopting a communist style of political organisation, which will totally change the way authorities are appointed, it is highly likely that Venezuela will enter a period of open dictatorship, accompanied by complete political instability and bottomless economic collapse. To win under these conditions will be a death sentence for chavismo.

This article has been translated from Spanish.