Participate or abstain? Parliamentary elections in Venezuela

Internal garden of the National Assembly in Caracas, Venezuela. Photo Luis Miguel Caceres. Crónica.Uno

By Laura Gamboa*, Maryhem Jimenez and Raul Sanchez***.

On August 3rd 2020, twenty-seven parties representing the Venezuelan political opposition announced they will not participate in the parliamentary elections scheduled for December 6th 2020. This decision create a lot of controversy. On the one hand, these elections take place in a context of pandemic, with an increasingly authoritarian system – with questioned electoral referees and a destroyed electoral system – in which an opposition victory is impossible and participating could legitimize fraudulent elections. On the other hand, not participating would make it easier for the regime to consolidate its political project. How do we approach to this dilemmatic situation?

This dilemma is typical of elections in authoritarian regimes. Legislative bodies are relevant, even in autocracies like Venezuela. The Venezuelan parliamentary elections are particularly important, it is the first electoral process since the presidential elections of May 2018 – which resulted in the illegitimate reelection of Nicolás Maduro – and they constitute a key piece for Maduro to finish consolidating the institutional control of the country. If they are so important, why not participate?

First, nothing demonstrates that the opposition has a real chance of winning, or if it does, the regime will respect the results. Supporters of unconditional electoral participation have as an argument the past victory in December 2015, when they conquered the National Assembly (AN) against all expectations. However, in 2015, Venezuela was a “competitive authoritarianism.” Although the elections were already irregular and unfair, they constituted spaces for real contestation of power. As it was demonstrated with the victory of the opposition coalition Mesa de Unidad Nacional (MUD), the triumph of the opposition was unlikely, but not impossible. Additionally, at that time, the opposition managed to coordinate its actions and present a consensual electoral offer.

Now, the scenario today is radically different. In 2015, Maduro understood that if the political opposition continues organizing and participating, they were capable of challenging him seriously, and changed its authoritarian strategy accordingly. Since then, he has sought to stay in power through the excessive abuse of various institutional mechanisms and the excessive increase in repression against opposition politicians and civil society. Since 2016 the opposition has lost 28 of the 112 seats it won in 2015. As if that were not enough, in June of this year, the Supreme Court (TSJ) assaulted the AN faculties for designate the National Electoral Council authorities, imposing a new board of director favorable to the government and, recently issued rulings that legalized the control by the government of two of the most important opposition parties: Primero Justicia and Acción Democrática.

Additionally the physical repression of the opposition members. Last year there were 574 victims of torture, 852 of cruel and inhuman treatment or punishment; 1,804 illegal raids; 789 threats and harassment by the government (or allied paramilitary groups); 1,692 arrested amid peaceful protests and other more 193 for political reasons. Worse still, more than 1,000 people died as a result of police and military intervention on these procedures.

There’s no doubt, that in this scenario it is difficult to participate and even more difficult to win. What is the advantage of participating in elections designed to entrench authoritarianism?

Main chamber of the Venezuelan Parliament. Photo by Guillermo Ramos Flamerich

The questions and the answers are not that simple. Abstaining has a high cost for the opposition. Despite all the government abuses, control of the NA has provided it with important spaces for struggle. Particularly due to this political control of the parliament the opposition was able to deny recognition to the controversial re-election of Maduro in 2018 and proceed to establish the interim presidency of Juan Guaidó in 2019 with the recognition of more than sixty countries of the international community.

“The legislative branch has served, in turn, to make visible the anguish suffered by society, contain Maduro’s ambition for power and exercise some levels of democracy and debate”. Laura Gamboa

The legislative branch has served, in turn, to make visible the anguish suffered by society, contain Maduro’s ambition for power and exercise some levels of democracy and debate. Even if we discount the parties and representatives co-opted by the government, the opposition still has a significant number of seats in the AN. If they participate, they may lose them, but if it is not certain that those seats will be occupied by the government and its allies.

Additionally, the upcoming parliamentary elections could help in the mid or long term to modify the structure of opportunities for the opposition. Always the elections are opportunities with clear objectives and limited time-frames, which open spaces for organization and mobilization. From other authoritarian contexts —e.j. Serbia (2000) or the Philippines (1986) – even when control is absolute and elections are usually fraudulent, an organized and mobilized opposition can produce sudden changes and defeat dictators without violence. These changes, however, are not achieved suddenly. The necessary job for this type of mobilization takes years and – on many occasions – a couple of failed electoral cycles.

Therefore, it is not clear that giving up on these events to articulate and mobilize is a good alternative, and could further demobilize the opposition. The last two years have been devastating for the political opposition coalition. The legitimacy and momentum given by the announcement of Guaidó’s interim presidency in January 2019 was diluted between the arbitrariness of the government and the mistakes of the opposition and some of its international allies.

Despite the fact that winning is impossible, coordinating actions around the elections could allow the opposition to find mechanisms of agreement, organize its parties, establish solid ties with civil society and local leaders, as well as develop a hopeful narrative that excite the population. The Maduro government has more than 80% rejection and more than 62% of the population wants the opposition to participate in the electoral process. These numbers are encouraging. Using the date of the parliamentary elections as an opportunity for coordination and the rebirth of a broad pro-democracy movement could make it possible to advance, even in the medium-long term, towards political change.

“Using the date of the parliamentary elections as an opportunity for coordination and the rebirth of a broad pro-democracy movement could make it possible to advance, even in the medium-long term, towards political change”. Laura Gamboa

Ultimately, the question about participation or non-participation on December 6th is inscribed in a broader context. The system is designed in the way that the majority opposition loses. The key, perhaps, is to think of elections not as a mechanism to achieve immediate power, but as a step in a longer plan, as a time for organizing and collective action. The plan, however, remains to be seen.

Posted in Spanish on Latinoamerica21

*Assistnat Teacher in Political Sciences at University of Utah. PhD in Political Sciences by the University of Notre Dame.

**PhD in Political Sciences at Oxford University.

*** Senior Lecturer in Crime, Justice and Legal Studies at LaTrobe University. Melbourne, Australia

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