Venezuela is in uncharted waters: after the long-trailed failure to reach an agreement for free and fair elections, the Maduro regime is now consolidating a dictatorship, and the April 22nd elections are a key part of the process.
This is entrenching the ruling coalition, its control over state money and state resources and its influence over regular people. It means dispensing with any reasonable mechanism to dislodge the regime.
Venezuela’s transition to dictatorship didn’t take place overnight. However, until 2017, the basic expectation was that there would eventually be a moment when Maduro had to re-legitimize his power in a competitive election. The collapse of the Dominican Republic dialogue and the regime’s final refusal of free and fair presidential elections puts an end to that expectation.
The April election isn’t designed to select a president. It’s designed to entrench Maduro’s autocracy.
Elections in authoritarian regimes are often more than window-dressing: They perform key functions to keep the reigning elite in power, establishing the required guidelines to institutionalize its rule and create new political routines that elites and the broader society must adapt to. They help reassert the relevance of the leader facing potential competitors within the movement. The leader uses the election, then, as a juncture to define who continues in the coalition (the “ins”) and who doesn’t (the “outs”).
The dialogue process deepened the rift and played into the slow-motion implosion of the MUD.
Recent rifts between the madurismo and former sacred cows like Rafael Ramirez show the kind of moves that can be less costly during election time. The creation of Somos Venezuela, a strange spinoff of the PSUV, is the most obvious sign that this election will be used to sort out the “ins” from the “outs.”
Elections can also divide and disempower the opposition, a central regime goal. The fight over whether or not to participate has deepened divisions between opposition partisans and their leaders, a phenomenon particularly visible in the Twittersphere. The dialogue process deepened the rift and played into the slow-motion implosion of the MUD.
We’ve also witnessed how the process of regaining ballot access has led to the gradual purging of many opposition parties — including the MUD — leaving only Acción Democrática, Copei, Un Nuevo Tiempo and Avanzada Progresista on the ballot. This is a deliberate attempt to encourage Acción Democrática to field a presidential candidate, or favor someone like Henri Falcón, perceived as disloyal to the opposition by some. It’ll bring legitimacy to the election and help cement the existence of a regime-pliant, “collaborationist” party.
Of course, elections bring legitimacy, domestically and abroad.
Most Venezuelans see this contest as the elecciones de la dictadura, but old habits die hard. Venezuelans are used to vote and might feel that not voting goes against their civic duties. Even many hard-line oppositionists will not accept that by participating in the election they’ll bolster the democratic credentials of the government. You can vote and still protest against the regime.
This is a deliberate attempt to encourage Acción Democrática to field a presidential candidate, or favor someone like Henri Falcón.
The government needs to reinforce its international legitimacy to lift existing sanctions (or prevent future ones), something it keeps failing at. This is a regime in dire need to enter into credible commitments with potential financial interests, business partners and investors. The election might just be the way to help restore Maduro’s mandate and work around this two major setbacks.
Additionally, the election can (and will) be used as a ploy to perfect and exercise social control. The government has been developing the carnet de la patria as a mechanism to ensure political support in exchange for “benefits”. This political extortion is morally repulsive yet very effective —according to Michael Penfold, it’s one of the key reasons why so many people voted for the PSUV in the last election. This might also explain why Maduro has become more popular in recent polls, during a worsening crisis. Perfecting this extortion mechanism might be seen as essential to consolidate party hegemony and turn voting into a ritual of loyal support to the ruling party.
Elections in autocratic regimes also help detect specific locations or communities where votes fall short of expectations, which can be used by the government to detect failures in the CLAP distribution system (or other benefits), or under-performing politicians. Thus, they also provide valuable information to enhance authoritarian governance.
This is no longer a “democratic fiesta.” Abusive military or even the presence of paramilitary forces can help create an atmosphere of fear and hopelessness to dissuade opposition voters from showing up. It’s a mistake to think that these elections are “just a sham”; understanding why, and to what extent they are meaningful for an unstable dictatorship like Maduro’s is essential to develop a strategy to confront the regime and restore democracy.