Venezuela, where even the tricks are running out

The question isn't whether the government plays dirty - we know it does. The question is whether they can play dirty enough to make a difference.

To a political scientist, Chavismo is an Electoral Authoritarian regime. The government needs elections as a way (maybe the only way) to get the legitimacy it needs to keep power. Given the importance of elections, the regime is capable of doing a-n-y-t-h-i-n-g to manipulate their outcome. So there is nothing to be surprised of when Maduro says that they have to win elections como sea.

It’s Austrian political scientist Andreas Schedler who wrote the book on Electoral Authoritarianism. It’s a primer on the distinctive electoral dynamics of these regimes. Regarding an election, he argues that to offer a real democratic choice, it has to meet seven minimal conditions:

  1. Empowering people to elect candidates for public office;
  2. Giving people the freedom to run for office;
  3. Giving parties the freedom to choose candidates;
  4. Allowing candidates to campaign freely;
  5. Allowing everyone to vote for the candidate of their choice;
  6. Weighting votes equally; and,
  7. Actually allowing the people who win to do the jobs they were elected to do

Of course, Venezuelan elections fail all seven tests. That’s hardly a surprise: the como sea amounts to an admission that the government has no interest in allowing 6D to offer a real democratic choice.

The question isn’t whether these seven conditions are met in our country, the question is whether the opposition can win even in the face of those violations. I think it can, because the government has tapped out all the avenues for subverting them…and it’s still not enough.

Each dirty trick chavismo uses to manipulate the elections compromises what’s left of its democratic capital. At some point, the marginal cost of applying a dirty trick starts to outweigh the benefits in terms of sustaining the appearance of popular support. There are diminishing returns to the marramucia. And I think we’re well into that territory.

Partly, it’s because resources are thin (not only financial, but also political, human, etc.). But it’s also because its margin of maneuver has narrowed. There’s less and less the regime can do to win the election (or to improve their political situation after them) without losing more in credibility than they win in apparent success.

One well-worn trick for chavismo has been to disempower the offices it loses, or create parallel public bodies it controls with similar responsibilities. Think of the way the Alcaldia Metropolitana was stripped of powers and resources when Ledezma was elected mayor, or the way CorpoMiranda and CorpoLara were set up to undercut opposition governors in those states. There’s some suggestion that they’re planning to do this again: letting regime-controlled Comunas or Consejos Comunales take on much of the role the constitution gives to the National Assembly. But the visibility of the Palacio Legislativo narrows the scope for this. You can’t get away with decreeing a parallel parliament as easily as with decreeing a parallel state government.

On violating the freedom of running for office, what restrictions has the regime placed in the way of participation in politics? Plenty: jailing or disqualifying candidates (Lopez, Ceballos, Ledezma, etc.), the forcible takeover of opposition parties (who can forget their move on Copei, the fake Unidad card on the tarjeton with the fake Ismael Garcia, and so on). They’ve paid heavily in reputational terms for each of these abuses…and they’re still 35 points behind in the latest Datanalisis poll.

What else can the regime do to sabotage the freedom to choose and to exercise political and civil rights? Restricting political and civil liberties and restricting access to media and money are a big one. People are scared to protest – you can end up jailed (or killed), and since there is no media to report it, nobody will necessarily hear about it beyond your family. But, again, the criminalization of protest and censorship are already working at full capacity. What else they can do without affecting their democratic capital even more? Close Aporrea? El Nacional? C’mon.

They have also played with the inclusion condition of democracy. In Venezuela there will be an informal disenfranchisement of the vote working at full steam in this election. Chavista-Maduristas are experts at this: we will see gangs of motorizados frightening voters on elections day, threats on opposition witnesses, Go Slow (morrocoy) operations in the voting tables and so on. Notwithstanding, the level of discontent seems so high that either motorizados will charge a higher price for intimidation services or they will be the opposition witnesses themselves.

On the freedom of citizens to express their electoral preferences, both the main ways to limit it are also exhausted, in my view. One is voter intimidation and the other vote buying. Regarding the first one, polls are reflecting people’s outright anger with Maduro. So, when he says “si la revolucion pierde, va a tomar otro character” I don’t see opposition supporters nor chavistas desencantados being afraid of that. They will go there and vote.

As for vote buying, they’ve been aggressive about that this year. The last few weeks have seen a slew of wage increase announcements, new old age pensions, the works. But it’s difficult to buy votes when you have triple digit inflation. As the famous economist David Romer pointed out: “by time inflation reaches triple digits, the costs of it are surely large, and the real effects of monetary changes are surely small. No reasonable policymaker would choose subject an economy to such large costs out of a desire to obtain such modest output gains”.

To dynamite “one person, one vote”, electoral authoritarian regimes can count on two powerful tools: the first is related to biased rules of electoral competition or organization and, the second, is related to electoral fraud and impunity. These are the most controversial of all the manipulation tools that the regime has, but I think they are exhausted too. Let’s see:

Gerrymandering and malapportionment have been cooked into the voting system for the last three cycles, there’s not much more you can do at the margin to wring extra curules out of those. And, as others have noted, ‘self-serving” apportionment rules can be a double-edged sword: a system that amplifies the advantage in seats of a party that’s well ahead in the popular vote can end up magnifying their loss. In the end, winner takes all.

The second tool, electoral fraud, is a hard-to-swallow one. People say there are voters out there with multiple ID cards to vote in different voting districts and that in remote places Chavista witnesses “fill the blanks” of the electoral notebooks with chavistas votes. The question here, then, should be if this is going to turn the balance down the Psuv side. Well, given the huge advantage that the opposition has on elections Chavismo will need something like 1.3 million of fake cédulas to win the simple majority. That, to me, will be sooo evident that the cost to their democratic credentials of trying it would vastly outweigh the benefits.

More important to me is the impunity to commit fraud: everybody should remember that in the last presidential election the opposition asked for an exhaustive audit, that is to say, to assess if the electoral rolls were fingerprinted accordingly and matched to what the voting act reported. I think everybody remembers Lucena on April 14th “vamos a hacer una auditoría con todas las de la Ley” and on April 15th changing her mind saying “the electoral rolls’ audit is not required”. This is certainly their strongest card, but again, the cost to their democratic credibility – and to regime cohesion – of trying it could be astronomical in the current climate.

The triquiñuelas to nullify the consequences of elections are also spent too. To be democratic, elections must have decisive consequences, i.e. “an agent elected for public office, an agent must go to public office”. While the regime has prevented elected officers from exercising their institutional powers in the past (Ledezma and Machado cases, for example), this has also affected their democratic capital and, trying to do it in today’s climate will be far from simple.

The other option to influence the consequences of elections is co-optation. Who can forget William Ojeda and Ricardo Sanchez? But again, this tool is already exhausted. Let’s take for instance the current legislative body: remember that the regime couldn’t “buy” the 99th deputy to obtain a simple majority? and that despite it has maneuvered to find it, no other opposition deputy was “on sale”? That suggests that this tool is also exhausted. If you ask me it’s more likely that some in the rump PSUV delegation in the new AN will defect to MUD than vice versa.

Think about it, who would want to defect to the loser’s side right after winning in an electoral landslide? Very few people. You’d have to be crazy.

And that’s just what Chavismo’s has become at this point: very few people, and pretty much all crazy.