In soccer terms, the government scored an own goal while they were the only team in the pitch. Sure, on Sunday they got what they wanted: unfettered control over a new National Assembly (AN). However, achieving that doesn’t make them winners, as the result was never in doubt. Instead, with turnout just barely above 30%—according to none other than a close ally of the presidential couple chosen to head the National Electoral Council, Indira Alfonzo—the government got humiliated. Notably, it didn’t get humiliated by a political rival (the few that ran against PSUV got crushed; more on that later), but by the millions of people receiving government benefits that refused to yield to the pressure of the regime coercion machinery, which left voting centers empty all around the country. Chavismo was able to mobilize all of its base—which stands at around 20% of registered voters, according to most polls—but couldn’t mobilize anyone else. The election laid bare, once again, the depth of the collapse of the chavista coalition under Maduro’s leadership.
Before the election, it was a given that the new AN would have an uphill battle to convince key actors—such as European and Latin American countries—that it was a legitimately elected body that should be taken seriously. The low turnout and the overwhelming chavista majority weakens even further any claim to legitimacy. The government wanted a new, legitimate, “institutional” parliament to show off abroad. Instead, they got a Cuban parliament. They wanted to hide the dictatorship behind a veil of democracy; instead, they pulled the curtain.
Ever since Hugo Chávez died, Diosdado Cabello has worked to gain control over the PSUV party. Nominally, the party is led by Nicolás Maduro as its President, while Cabello is the First Vice-President. But Cabello has vast influence over a national and regional party structure and grassroots groups. Maduro felt sufficiently threatened by Cabello’s hold on PSUV for him to launch a separate party in 2018 led by his trusted ally, Delcy Rodríguez, the Movimiento Somos Venezuela (a party that today has a role in operating the Carnet de la Patria system).
The PSUV apparatus serves several purposes. During non-election times, the party serves to funnel cash and resources to its grassroots, organize CLAP deliveries and make sure people understand who they owe for all the government social programs. During elections, those command and logistics structures, coupled with election-time coercion, are supposed to be turned into votes for chavista candidates—and not only from party members; these activists are expected to bring their neighbors to the voting centers as well. On December 6th, the party apparatus, and thus Diosdado Cabello, failed miserably.
Add to this that the National Constituent Assembly, presided by Cabello, will end next January. What does all of this mean in terms of current Cabello’s influence, and therefore the whole equation of power inside chavismo? We’ll see.
The opposition unity
The Guaidó and G4-led opposition was hoping for an embarrassingly low turnout in the election, and they got it. However, that “victory” may be short lived. Looking ahead to 2021, when the government will no doubt call for regional and municipal elections, that low turnout will be bait for the opposition parties that want to take part in elections. Think Acción Democrática, Un Nuevo Tiempo, and the Henrique Capriles faction inside Primero Justicia: they all wanted to run in the election, and were negotiating electoral conditions with the government. Ultimately, the government shut them out by taking over their parties through the Supreme Tribunal of Justice (because the government didn’t want them to take part, after all). By taking over their parties, the government saved the opposition from a split between those who wanted to take part in the election and those who didn’t. Next year, those centrifugal forces within the opposition will come back stronger, as AD, UNT and Capriles look at the low chavista turnout on 6D as a confirmation that their view—that the opposition has to return to electoral politics, even under unfair conditions—is the way ahead.
The election laid bare, once again, the depth of the collapse of the chavista coalition under Maduro’s leadership.
On the other side, after the opposition lost the National Assembly and no presidential election looks close in the horizon, what reasons do those parties have to insist in keeping unity with the rest of the opposition? The centrifugal forces will be stronger in 2021, enough to shatter what’s left of the opposition alliance.
Falcón staked his political capital on going against most of the opposition by taking part in elections—for the second time in two years. And just like in 2018, he came up short. This time around, very short. Actually, he got crushed. After becoming one of the most high profile advocates of taking part in this and every election, voters soundly rejected (or ignored) Falcón and his party. He put all his chips on having AP lawmakers in the new AN, hold some influence in upcoming negotiations, and become one of the visible faces of the “new” opposition. It didn’t go according to plan, as AP scored only one lawmaker.
At the time of writing, the CNE was reporting that Falcón’s Avanzada Progresista got 2.5% of the votes in the “national list”, or around 155,000 votes. The Communist Party, running outside of the chavista coalition, received more votes than AP, getting 170,000 votes. The coalition of illegally hijacked opposition parties—hijacked while Falcón conveniently looked the other way—got 260,000 votes, while the illegally hijacked COPEI party got 175,000. Falcón’s argument that he was a veritable opposition leader because he “got 2 million votes in an election” died on Sunday.
There are people who agree with Falcón’s view that the opposition should take part in elections, and hundreds of thousands of them voted on 6D. But while they may agree with his view, they clearly don’t want to vote for him.
“La Mesita” opposition
In September 2019, a few small opposition parties signed an agreement with the government to start a negotiation process mostly centered around electoral conditions—and thus, “La Mesita” was born. These small parties, most of which had little to no influence within the larger opposition coalition, hoped to become recognized political players by virtue of “getting things done” and having a seat at the table. They agreed with the government on changing a bunch of electoral rules without any kind of public consultation—many of which violated the Constitution, including on how lawmakers are elected and allocated—, and negotiated a seat at the board of the Electoral Council (the same kind of secret negotiations and rules changes today criticized by one of them, as if his party had nothing to do with it). The coronation of their work was to be a decent (if minority) delegation in the new AN, which would make them influential players in three-sided negotiations this year between them, the government and the rest of the opposition.
The centrifugal forces will be stronger in 2021, enough to shatter what’s left of the opposition alliance.
At the time of writing, it looks as if the Mesita parties will get only six lawmakers (out of 277): three for the illegally hijacked parties, two for pastor Javier Bertucci’s party, and one for Henri Falcón’s Avanzada Progresista. So far, it looks like only 10 lawmaker posts will go to “opposition” parties, including non-Mesita parties. Our guess is that’s too few even for the government, which would have preferred a larger “opposition” delegation to provide a veneer of legitimacy for the new AN, and create the illusion of healthy political debate and competition.
Claudio Fermín, who campaigned for his party Soluciones, and was given hours upon hours of media coverage by State media as an “opposition leader”, appears to have been left out. Same for Timoteo Zambrano (Cambiemos), and Felipe Mujica and Leopoldo Puchi (MAS). They all worked hard to organize a party, and were left outside looking in.
People who receive government benefits
The government has massively expanded the reach of its social programs the last couple of years. According to the latest ENCOVI survey, around 90% of households receive subsidised food parcels through the CLAP program, and there’s at least one holder of the Carnet de la Patria in a similar proportion of households. Private polls regularly show that when the government says that 18 or 19 million people hold a Carnet de la Patria, they’re not exaggerating. For months, people who receive benefits were told they needed to vote to keep receiving food and cash transfers. They were told there was a special cash bonus coming in December for those who vote. They were told by Diosdado Cabello “No vote, no food”. It would have been so easy to yield to these pressures and incentives: just go and vote quickly in an empty voting center. And yet they mostly stayed at home and gave the metaphorical middle finger to the government.
Henrique Capriles, Acción Democrática and Un Nuevo Tiempo
Acción Democrática, Un Nuevo Tiempo and the Henrique Capriles-led faction inside Primero Justicia were hoping to take part in the election, but were shut out by the government. The low turnout for chavismo will bolster their argument within the opposition that they should take part in any 2021 elections, even if electoral conditions don’t improve. This time around, they tried to get improved electoral conditions and failed. For 2021, we can expect them to go ahead whatever the conditions. In their view, the opposition can overwhelm the extremely weakened chavista coalition at the polls and overcome electoral fraud, if only they all call on the opposition base to vote. Whether they’re right or not, it doesn’t matter; what matters is that they’ll use the 6D results to tell their rivals in the opposition “I told you so”.
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