Venezuela’s Highest Court Steals Home for Chavismo

The move by the government to steal the result in Barinas using the TSJ and the hostility towards the European Union electoral observation mission won’t hide what November 21st showed: chavismo’s electoral game is weak. Here's an updated extract of our Political Risk Report

The results of the regional election held on November 21st brought both good and bad news for all sides of the Venezuelan never-ending political crisis. The opposition, even with low turnout and with parallel candidates splitting the vote in numerous races, managed to win the most municipalities it’s ever held under chavismo, but fell short of expectations in terms of governorships. For the government, even if it managed to hold most municipalities and states, the low turnout has to be of concern, especially since the chavista vote count registered 700,000 fewer votes than in the last parliamentary election, which was then considered an unacceptable failure by Maduro.

Debate within opposition circles and commentators is mostly centered around what to make of the fact that while non-chavista candidates garnered around 4.4 million votes—compared to 3.7 million for chavismo—about 55% of this non-chavista vote went to parties outside the MUD coalition, including for politicians that have sided with chavismo against MUD parties before.

We believe this debate is mostly fruitless. Yes, G4 parties should worry about the large vote of fringe opposition parties becoming a trend. However, compared to presidential or parliamentary elections, local elections have their own particular nuances. People might vote not by party affiliation, but simply for the candidate they already know or has a track record in their community: a current or former governor or mayor, a local activist, their school buddy, etc. As a matter of fact, the three governorships won by the opposition—with a fourth in a concerning situation in Barinas—were won by former governors. Alberto Galíndez, the new governor of Cojedes, had won in the state twice previously in the ‘90s. Morel Rodríguez in Nueva Esparta—or just Morel, as he’s known there, the most influential political figure in the state for the past 35 years—won the governor’s election for the fourth time in five attempts. In Zulia, Manuel Rosales returns to the governor office for a third time. Galíndez and Rosales ran in the MUD coalition, while Morel beat both the chavista and the MUD candidate. But we doubt most people who voted for them cared for the party name in the ballot box: they voted for Rosales, Morel, and Galíndez, former governors they likely associate with better times.

When the time comes for a recall referendum—if it comes—and a presidential election, we believe fringe opposition parties will have a hard time breaking through against both the chavista and the MUD candidates—both of which will be better funded and have a higher profile than any third or fourth option. Fringe opposition parties have no doubt benefited from a significant number of G4 parties and political figures sitting out recent elections.

However, we believe a large part of the G4 has already decided to give the electoral route a try for the coming years, which will crowd-out fringe opposition parties and, as we explain below, also prompt a rethink by the regime of their strategy against the opposition.

The regional election was a reminder of chavismo’s electoral problem: even with a divided opposition and several opposition leaders sitting out the election, chavismo lost decisively in the national vote count by around ten points. In recent elections the regime had played up the divisions in the opposition—and persecuted parties and leaders, and banned them from elections—to encourage abstention. With a large part of the G4 and opposition leaders like Henrique Capriles committed to taking part in elections going forward no matter how unfair the electoral conditions, the regime’s strategy might have run its course.

The regime can’t afford the opposition taking part in elections in full force—it just can’t win. It’s an issue Maduro and PSUV will have to ponder in the next months, as the opposition ramps up the pressure for a recall referendum—which looks increasingly unlikely to be allowed to go forward by the regime—and the date of the next presidential election in 2024 approaches. Sure, chavistas have several tools at their disposal: they can simply block the recall referendum under any excuse, and ban as many opposition parties and candidates from running in elections as needed, to the point there’s no one left to beat the chavista candidate. However, that strategy is not without costs, especially for a regime looking to get sanctions relief by projecting an image of respecting the rights of the opposition and the democratic process. Furthermore, it’s not a costless strategy for a regime looking to extricate itself from prosecution by the International Criminal Court for crimes related to the violent repression against that same opposition. The regime needs to find a new way to make it appear they won a referendum or a presidential election when they didn’t actually win it, because simply counting on the opposition deciding not to take part in the election won’t cut it going forward.

The alarms were set off by claims of security forces intimidating an elected mayor in Guárico, and briefly detaining an elected mayor in Mérida can further stain the final balance of this election, which already got a thumbs down from the EU observers mission in their preliminary report

A Stain in the Chavista Heartland

And there’s the Barinas issue, the state where Hugo Chávez was born, and part of the Venezuelan plains, the Llanos. The region where chavismo was omnipotent until the economic and humanitarian collapse disheveled the assistance and clientelist grab on this abused part of the country where land invasion and expropriation, gang violence, and drug trafficking have depleted the sources of income for an already poor population. A week after the election, the CNE hasn’t hasn’t been able to recount the votes for the governorship, where opposition candidate Freddy Superlano claims to have won. 

Losing Barinas is a powerful symbol. The Chávez family started its Barinas rule even before Hugo Chávez became president. Hugo de Los Reyes Chávez, the father of the caudillo, was elected governor in 1998, before the presidential elections. Hugo de los Reyes was reelected twice and ruled until 2007. Then came Adán, the brother who introduced young Hugo to communism. Adán was elected governor in 2008 and 2012. After taking over the governorship from the interim governor that replaced Adán when he left to become a minister, Argenis Chávez was elected governor in 2017. If the CNE finally declares Superlano the winner, Argenis would have lost a state ruled by the family—and for the family—for 23 years. 

As usual, the more time the CNE takes to look closely at the count, the more it looks like chavismo is doing all that it can to revert what seems to be an opposition victory the ruling party can’t accept. 

Today, one week and one day after the election, the military finally delivered to the CNE in Caracas the tallies of the three voting stations that remained uncounted (all of them manual, not automatized as the majority of stations in the Venezuelan automatized system). The three voting tallies had been retained by the local election authorities and military officers, while Freddy Superlano was traveling between Barinas and Caracas and telling his followers to stay alert but in peace. On Monday morning—after Diosdado Cabello said during the weeked that they couldn’t relinquish El Comandante’s state, and Maduro called the EU observers spies, the Supreme Tribunal of Justice (TSJ) admitted a sort of injunction introduced by Adolfo Superlano, one of the lawmakers who traveled to Europe in 2019 (along with Luis Parra and José Brito) to put in a good word for Alex Saab. In consequence, the TSJ conveniently decided to freeze the final count and any adjudication or proclamation by the CNE regarding the governorship of Barinas. The action by this Superlano, who’s also from Barinas but not related to the candidate (we know, it’s confusing), claimed that there had been “tensions” in the state that could endanger voting rights. Although it sounds ridiculous, wait for the kicker: the TSJ not only granted the measure but also added that Freddy Superlano was barred from public office due to an open criminal investigation against him. This Superlano (the candidate!), and a group of opposition politicians who had been barred from running, were allowed to do so per an agreement produced by the Mexico negotiations. Oh, well.

So, for now, as elections expert Eugenio Martínez explained, a chavista legislative council will be tasked with appointing an interim governor while the electoral chamber of the TSJ solves the Barinas matter. A similar situation to what we saw with the Amazonas legislators in 2015 and the Bolívar governorship in 2017. In both instances, the government hijacked the elections and the TSJ shelved the cases.

UPDATE 10:36 p.m. EST: The TSJ ordered a revote in Barinas to be held on January 9th, 2022. The court annulled the election on the grounds of Freddy Superlano’s ineligibility, who they admit won with 37,60% of the vote.  

Could we say this was IT for the electoral route? While the skeptics may enjoy their “Se los dije” (told you so!) moment, the electoral instincts are very hard to kill in this country. Stealing Barinas won’t make part of the opposition forget they won Zulia, and, in 2022, you can bet they will line up for the recall referendum and the hope for a disputable presidential election.

In the full report, you’ll find information on what’s going behind the curtains of the Venezuelan political struggle. You can subscribe to the PRR here.