An Election Year Without An Election

rubicon2Legislative Elections are meant to take place later this year, replacing the National Assembly chosen in 2010 with a new cohort. These elections should, by any reckoning, be the central political event of the year. There’s just one rub: they probably won’t happen.

I’m out on a limb here. By indefinitely postponing a vote, Maduro would be breaking a taboo Chávez never had reason to break, and that will have unpredictable consequences for the government’s stability. Maduro may very well not survive it. But I still think it’s his best option because, on current polling trends, holding the election would surely break his hold on power.

Back in 2010, CaracasChron worked out a little Legislative Election Forecasting Tool aimed at predicting the impact of a given popular vote distribution at the national level on the distribution of actual A.N. seats. The tool showed the ways the system was rigged to benefit PSUV: in effect, the opposition would need to win 54% or more of the National Popular Vote to overcome the gerrymandered map and win a 50%+1 majority on the A.N.

(In the event, the tool did quite well at predicting the outcome of the election: with 49.6% of the head-to-head vote against PSUV, the tool predicted MUD would win 66 seats in the 165 seat National Assembly. They got 65.)

What the forecasting tool really showed, though, is that Venezuela’s idiosyncratic part-first-past-the-post/part-proportional-but-not-really AN voting rules tend to build up big, disproportionate supermajorities if the election isn’t close. For example, even using the 2010 district boundaries, if the opposition had achieved 60% of the vote it stood to win 72% of the seats in the A.N.

Now, we haven’t reworked the legislative election tool for 2015 yet, but that basic feature is unlikely to change. Venezuela’s voting system is proportional in name only. The system skews pro-PSUV, but only in a close-ish election: otherwise, it just rewards the winner big-time.  And that’s a two-edged sword.

I haven’t seen any Generic Ballot Question polling out of Caracas this cycle yet, but with the way Maduro’s popularity numbers look right now, it seems reasonable to expect that the government would lose the national popular vote by a wide margin.

58-42? 60-40? 62-38? These aren’t fanciful scenarios: we’re going into a midterm election in the middle of a brutal economic contraction with widespread shortages and triple-digit food inflation against a government led by a man even chavistas generally loathe. These are not the makings of a close election.

Now, if PSUV really is in that range – 38-42% range of the vote in the head-to-head matchup vs. MUD – then the government probably won’t get more than 55 of the 165 seats, and might get as few as 35.

For chavismo, that would be a catastrophe of regime-ending proportions, not just because it would surely trigger a recall referendum that Maduro would be poised to lose but because it would shatter PSUV’s carefully constructed aura of invincibility.

I don’t think Maduro has the political or organizational chops to flip an electoral Armageddon on this scale into a win via fraud: he’s just too far behind. Intimidation and vote rigging can tip the balance in a close election in Venezuela, but it’s just not possible when you’re trailing by 18 or 20 points. You need too many people too well-organized in too many places, and the feat of organization required is just more than PSUV can muster at a time when just 1-in-4 self-identified PSUV supporters even want to see Maduro re-elected.

Finding some pretext to cancel elections would be a risky move, for sure. But not as risky as going to elections and ending up with, say, 48 escaños. The former makes the regime highly vulnerable, the latter surely ends it. If I was Maduro, I know what I’d do.

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