How Diosdado’s Cunning Plan Could Spectacularly Backfire

Original art by @modográfico

The presidential election announced yesterday is probably a bleak omen for the possibility of a peaceful endgame to our current catastrophe. Given what we know about the way these guys roll, it’s easy to dismiss as unimaginable the idea that the government could lose. But history is sprinkled with examples of ruthless authoritarian regimes that called an election never dreaming they could lose them, only to be shown the door.

Look, we fully grasp by far the most likely scenario is that they do whatever it takes to win even if that means disqualifying the 27 million Venezuelans who aren’t PSUV members. The government has painstakingly built blackmail-y votes-for-food system that guarantees them around 6 million votes as a rock-bottom minimum. It can and it probably will disenfranchise Venezuelans living abroad and Jorge Rodríguez will experly play opposition members against one other, leveraging their petty grievances and using SEBIN to create more.

However, chavismo does have to allow some competitive conditions to get the opposition to participate. Even with the Kafkaesque conditions that the government will set, there is a non-zero chance that the opposition may settle their differences, choose a decent candidate and actually win this thing.

History is full of examples of authoritarian regimes over confidently calling for elections that they thought they could never lose and then going on to lose them because they underestimated what it would take to steal them. More generally, as international relations scholars have known forever and a day, miscalculation is one of the basic drivers of human history.

Chavismo does have to allow some competitive conditions to get the opposition to participate.

It’s easy to sketch out a story of how this might play out. Chavismo’s comfortable wins in gubernatorial and municipal elections late last year is clearly boosting their confidence in Nicolás Maduro’s viability as a candidate. It’s easy to see how PSUV could “overlearn” the lessons of October and December 2017. How they could “forget” that turnout in Venezuela is much higher in national and presidential elections than in regional ones. (Even though there was a huge outrage about abstention in the October gubernatorial elections, turnout was not much different from past ones.)

Late last year, Maduro was careful to remove himself from the campaign. In a presidential election this is impossible, his odious bloated chin will have to be in all posters.

You could even argue that a rational voter, knowing Maduro would stay in Miraflores whatever the outcome of his municipal or gubernatorial election, would logically prefer to vote for a PSUV candidate: electing an opposition local leader would surely cut the area off from transfers from the central government. We don’t usually think of it that way, but an opposition supporter who detests Nicolás Maduro might have had good reason to vote for a PSUV mayor or governor anyway.

Buying votes through bolivars is effective as long as the bolivars you are giving away are worth something and people aren’t making 50 cents a month.

Even if you think that’s nonsense there are good reasons to think PSUV might have a rockier road than they’re realizing. It’s also impossible to ignore the hyperinflationary elephant in the room.

Think about it, this will be the first election in Venezuela held in its first ever hyperinflation. Buying votes through bolivars is effective as long as the bolivars you are giving away are worth something and people aren’t making 50 cents a month. Hyperinflation is destroying the livelihoods of low-ranking military members of the armed forces: precisely the people whose support you need in order for any election-theft plan to work.

And yet, we live under a ruthless dictatorship. We know that chavismo is likely to overcome all of this and win. But it’s in no way a sure thing. Since the Massacre of El Junquito, the government has been as its most erratic.  Maybe they will call the elections off when they realize they’re out of their depth. Or maybe this is a bluff to get the opposition to compromise on sanctions at the Dominican dialogue.

Or maybe they’re just miscalculating. Maybe. 

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