Venezuela – Elections for Governor Cause Opposition Disunity

On October 15th, Venezuela held elections for the 23 state gubernatorial posts. Despite public opinion polls suggesting that the opposition would gain a significant number of the governorships, with one prediction suggesting they could even control 16 states after the election (from three), the governing coalition of Nicolás Maduro eventually won 18 states of the 23, with the opposition coalition MUD (Mesa de la Unidad Democrática), taking the remaining five. These five states are Táchira, Mérida, Nuevo Esparta, Anzoátegui and Zulia, while the government regained the state of Miranda (which covers part of Caracas) and Hugo Chávez’s younger brother, Argenis, managed to maintain hold of the state of Barinas.

The MUD have since refused to recognise the legitimacy of the elections and have called for a complete audit. They accuse the government of widespread fraud and vote rigging. But the elections appear be driving a wedge among the opposition coalition and undermining their unity (and consequently their ability to challenge the government of Maduro). President Maduro insisted that before any of the governors take up their posts, they must swear allegiance to a new Constituent Assembly that Maduro created by decree in July.

The constituyente was created for two main reasons; firstly, to transform the institutional structure of the Venezuelan state, and secondly, to sideline the opposition dominated Congress that has proven such a thorn in Maduro’s side. In the last legislative elections in December 2015, the government lost their majority in Congress to the opposition alliance. Although the opposition won enough seats for the all-important two thirds majority, some political machinations managed to prevent the super-majority taking their seats, by barring three opposition legislators due to alleged election irregularities.

Initially, all five MUD governors choose to boycott the official ceremony in the Constituent Assembly where all governors were expected to swear their allegiance to the body. However, the governors from the states Táchira, Mérida, Nuevo Esparta and Anzoátegui changed their minds and did eventually swear the oath of allegiance. Now, one of the central figures in the opposition movement and a former presidential candidate, Henrique Capriles, has announced that he is leaving the MUD coalition in response to the decision of the four governors. This could have serious implications for the ability of the opposition to resist the increasing authoritarianism of the Maduro government.

We have written before on this blog, notably with reference to Venezuela, about electoral or competitive authoritarianism, a coin termed by Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way in a seminal paper back in 2002. These are regimes that they describe as a ‘diminished form of authoritarianism’ and involve the reform of political institutions to centralize power and distort the electoral arena in order to stack the deck in favor of the incumbent. Democracy remains, particularly the façade of procedural democracy, but it is of a much weakened variety.[1]

These gubernatorial elections have long been mired in controversy. The National Electoral Council, CNE (Consejo Nacional Electoral) had long prevaricated about when, and indeed if, these elections would be held. They were initially slated to be held in December 2016, but the National Electoral Council decided to push them back until mid-2017. Last May, the elections were scheduled for this coming December, before the electoral council announced a date in October.  During the elections themselves, numerous problems arose. At the last minute, 273 voting centres were relocated, largely from areas where the MUD is strong, for security reasons, and some ballots continued to carry the names of defeated primary candidates.

Whether Maduro can use these elections as a means to consolidate his power in the face of an economic crisis and widespread unpopularity remains to be seen.

[1] Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way. 2001. The Rise of Competitive Authoritarianism. Journal of Democracy., Vo. 13(2), pp. 51-65.

 

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