Still shell-shocked by a series of defeats, facing a military government that’s ruthless in smashing dissent, the opposition staggers around listlessly hardly believing its own claim to power. Wise people warn about the need to hunker down for the long haul. With key leaders jailed or exiled, the opposition wallows in a kind of collective post-traumatic stress, no longer really daring to believe regime change might be possible, much less imminent. The government, everyone knows, has a complete stranglehold over electoral institutions: it can flagrantly violate the constitution it itself had approved to give itself an unfair advantage in elections, and there isn’t a damn thing anybody can do about it.
Welcome to November, 1957.
The Pérez Jiménez dictatorship had blatantly broken the 1952 constitution to substitute a promised presidential election with a yes/no plebiscite on his continued rule. Everyone knew this wasn’t legal, everyone knew voting conditions would not be fair. The voting system wasn’t even secret, and public employees were explicitly threatened with dismissal if they did not show up to the office with the “No” ballot on Monday, proving that they had deposited the “Yes” ballot (in favor of the regime) in the ballot box. But with the price of dissent set explicitly at prison, no one could do anything about it.
The government did indeed go on to “win” the plebiscite of December 15, 1957, and by a wide margin. Less than six weeks later, the dictator Pérez Jiménez had fled the country, his regime a pile of rubble around him. December 1957 is an object lesson in why elections are always a crisis point for authoritarian regimes – and doubly so for unpopular ones – no matter how monolithic their power may appear.
The decision Pérez Jiménez faced ahead of the vote has absolute resonance today: he could either allow a more-or-less fair election and go down in honorable defeat, or he could try to rig the vote, putting forward unacceptable voting conditions that guaranteed his triumph and ride out the consequences. He had all the power he could have asked for to try the latter course, and the opposition felt entirely powerless to oppose him.
One fascinating aside is that one of the very few voices that actually foresaw the potential for the dictatorship’s decision to cheat to backfire and undermine its stability was a then little known Copei youth activist by the name of Luis Herrera.
That was far from the consensus among opposition bigwigs. For one Romulo Betancourt, in his correspondence from exile in late 1957, lamented that Acción Democrática had essentially stopped functioning as a national organization by then. With all its key cadres jailed or exile, AD couldn’t mount a rally in Guatire if it set its mind to it. The reasonable expectation – indeed, the very widely shared expectation – was that Pérez Jiménez would never willingly give up power through the ballot box.
That expectation turned out to be right…but useless. Elections have a way of destabilizing unpopular authoritarian regimes that are quite independent of what the leader is or is not willing to accept.
Why? Because the actual process of stealing an election dramatically demonstrates to the regime’s remaining supporters the precariousness of their own position. The “cooperate/defect” choice facing each of them gets rebalanced towards defection. It is one thing to know for sure that a government is illegitimate; it’s quite another to know for sure that everyone around you knows that everyone around you knows it is illegitimate. Elections – when rigged – can give rise to just the sort of “Emperor Has No Clothes” moment where everyone suddenly acknowledges publicly what each person had known privately just a moment before.
For an authoritarian regime, that’s a moment of utmost peril.
Come December 6th, realizing just how far behind they are, the Maduro regime may well calculate that their best bet to stay in power is to simply steal the election. That decision, if it is made, will be made on the basis of a calculation that that’s how the regime can cement itself in power.
It wouldn’t be the first time a Venezuelan government has made such a wager. And it wouldn’t be the first time that calculation has been wrong, either.