The Game We’re In

Chavismo's state governors see Maduro more as part of the problem than of the solution. Until you've thought through the implications of that, you haven't understood the game we're in.

Back when Chávez was around, the institutional game in Venezuela was simple: we had a caudillo, he controlled all state institutions, so he could just tell them what to do. The end.

In the Maduro era, things are substantially more complex. While chavismo has been mindful to maintain the optics of autocratic continuity, nobody in their right mind believes Maduro can boss around the chavista faction heads like Chávez could.

The most obvious outcome of this has been policymaking paralysis: the now famous deer-in-the-headlights shtick that passes for economic policy these days. On the political front, the government has been able to preserve, more or less, the appearance of unity: the polite fiction that Maduro continues today to play the role Chávez carved out for the top boss.

The real question in Venezuelan politics today is how long PSUV can sustain that fiction, and what happens when it begins to break down. And the place where the illusion of unitary state control will be most sorely tested is the CNE.

 
Chavismo’s governors depend on the patronage machines that run out of state governments to wield power and influence. Without those patronage machines, they’re enormously diminished figures.

So far, the tensions between PSUV’s factions have been serious but manageable. But what happens when the interests of one powerful faction within PSUV come to clash head on with the interests of another? How does madurista “pretend autocracy” work its way through that?

The question is anything but academic. Venezuela is scheduled to have elections for state governors and legislators in December this year. Those of us focused on the game for control of the Central Government have a tendency to see these regional elections as a bit of a sideshow. In fact, they’re the pressure point that could tear the chavista coalition in two.

Try to imagine what the world looks like right now through the eyes of Francisco Ameliach. Or Tareck El Aissami. Or Francisco Rangel Gómez. Or yet another tocayo, Arias Cardenas. For chavismo’s sitting governors, December’s gubernatorial elections are a disaster waiting to happen. These people wear the Maduro presidency like an albatross around their political necks. Maduro has made the PSUV name electorally toxic, and they can see they’re about to be the ones to pay the price.

This is nothing to be taken lightly. Chavismo’s governors depend on the patronage machines that run out of state governments to wield power and influence. Without those patronage machines, they’re enormously diminished figures. These guys want to hang on to those gobernaciones whatever it takes: many who know they’re not really presidenciables have accepted their fates as bigger fish in smaller, state-sized ponds. This, and not Miraflores, is what being “in power” looks like for them.

Alongside the governors there’s a whole series of chavista leaders who’ve moved away from the government: everyone from Marea Socialista and the Giordani/Hector Navarro axis to a whole lot of “formers”. Former interior minister Miguel Rodríguez Torres. Former Caracas mayor Freddy Bernal. And a bunch more.

 
Sooner rather than later CNE is going to be forced to make a key decision, a decision that could fracture the governing coalition in two.

The incentives for these displaced – but still influential – figures to band together with PSUV’s governors as a counterweight to Maduro/Diosdado is real, and growing every day. And it’s a huge problem for Maduro, because the governors are the guys who are in actual command of the patronage machines that guys like Maduro rely on to mobilize the vote on election day. Including, for instance, the “No” vote in a recall referendum.

You start to see the outline of why I don’t think the institutional game is quite as “trancado” as people think. We are, today, miles and miles from the situation in 1999-2012, when a single person could pick up a phone, make one phone call, and decide anything that needed deciding within the Venezuelan state, no ifs ands or buts.

Right now, you have significant, powerful factions within the chavista movement that sees Maduro’s presidency as more a problem than a solution, and Maduro has no “higher power” he can appeal to to keep them in line.

Why does this circle back to CNE? Because sooner or later – and trust me, it’s sooner – CNE is going to be forced to make a key decision, a decision that could fracture the governing coalition in two: what comes first, the recall referendum or the gubernatorial elections?

Even if you’re convinced that CNE’s rectors “lack meaningful autonomy”, even if you think they’re basically just gophers for PSUV, you have to ask yourself: for whom in PSUV?

The days when Tibisay Lucena could make that decision on the basis of a single phone call are over. This time around, she’s going to come under enormous pressure from players on both sides of PSUV’s internal divide.

And then, once a decision is made, does the losing side just lick its wounds and accept it? If the choice is to hold state elections first, dooming a generation of powerful chavista governors to an ignominious defeat in December, do they just grin and bear it? If CNE moves with a recall first, does the Miraflores clique defer to her unquestioned autonomy? How long before these tensions boil over into an open rift?

This is the political game we’re playing in Venezuela in 2016. It’s very different from the game we’ve known up until now. Brace yourselves.

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