Game Theory and Venezuelan Politics: Unity Is The Game

The famous mathematic model can help explain which options Chavismo and the opposition are facing and how the opposition has forced Chavismo to devise a new strategy.

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The name of the game is unity: whoever cracks first, loses. In short, that’s the current dynamic of the Venezuelan political power play: a grappling match in which each side is imposing as many strategic dilemmas as possible on their opponents by elevating their political costs, realigning individual incentives and offering off-ramps to lower the cooperation costs of their adversaries.

The regime’s strategy and incentives are broadly aligned around Nicolás Maduro as a leader who seeks legitimacy through “elections” and assures stability by dividing the opposition, choosing its contenders and disincentivizing the vote. For the opposition, the incentives are not as aligned, prompting mutual (intra-opposition) exploitation and zero-sum games between its members around a consensus on voting, while strengthening their party structures for a future process of reinstitutionalization and negotiations. However, the opposition’s unity has prevailed, disrupting Maduro’s strategy. 

Game theory can be used to explain what’s happening in Venezuela. 

This branch of mathematics studies how “players” (rational agents) should define their strategies based on incentives, the other players’ strategy and the nature of the “game” (situations). In game theory, the Nash Equilibrium describes when an individual player has no incentive to deviate from their initial strategy because he or she knows the opponent’s strategy and yet the initial strategy remains the optimal one. 

In Venezuela, barely fifty days before the presidential elections, the opposition players’ strategy has managed to break the government’s usual Nash Equilibrium and force them into a new game. In this view, Maduro’s last move is a strategy adjustment; rebalancing the game into a new Nash Equilibrium.

Madurismo’s incentives and strategy

The regime’s main objective is to remain in power and maintain the status quo, which creates stability and security not only for Nicolás Maduro but for other political entrepreneurs of the regime. This is expected, as any guarantees, pardons or amnesties would most likely be declared void by either national or international courts –like the International Criminal Court or the Inter-American Court of Human Rights– after applying the transitional human rights standards, turning any democratic transition into an existential threat to Maduro and his clique. Any change in the regime’s leadership would also create incentives to sell out the radicals and the burnt-out leaders, increasing risks to the whole structure. Thus, turning Maduro into the answer for the entire political structure of the regime; as any change would bring significant instability. For Chavismo, even if the storm is rocking the boat perilously, the status quo is always safer and more stable. 

To exercise power, every system requires a narrative of legitimacy, be it the leader’s surname as in the case of Chavismo, God or the polls. Now, as legitimacy is not binary but a spectrum, the acceptance of a government’s legitimacy will ultimately depend on how convincing its narrative is, and on what incentives each group has to legitimize the system. Maduro’s regime depends on many power structures (bureaucracy, security sector, criminal networks, popular support, international allies, etc), whose incentives to legitimize him are directly proportional to the benefits obtained. This hard balancing act is often portrait as a zero-sum game, where the measures to stay in power are directly proportional to the political costs, but that is far from the reality. Maduro exploits greyzone tactics to make its legitimacy narrative more acceptable to some structures, offsetting the negative effects of repression or anti-democratic measures and creating a more dynamic balancing task for the regime.

Regime allies also find incentives along the axis of kleptocracy, state control and impunity. No negotiation by itself will be able to break the regime’s cohesion or present an exit for the clique. This dynamic incentivizes Maduro to redistribute resources when pressure increases, as it has done with the El-Aissami-linked ventures, its lavish spending on Evangelical networks, communal clientelist benefits and the illicit economies boom. 

Therefore –seeking both its continuity and legitimacy, while preserving its support networks and shielding them against outside pressure– Maduro’s strategy is to obtain the maximum level of legitimacy without risking its stability by engaging in the most competitive elections it can afford to run. But for this, the regime will engage in any necessary practice to increase its “competitiveness”: primarily by attacking the adversaries, through cost-effective tactics like dividing the opposition and demoralizing voters to reduce their turnout, but also by handing benefits to its disillusioned bases.

This dynamic of legitimacy/redistribution is hard but necessary: The survival of Maduro leaves most regime allies better off in the near future, and a 70% disapproval rate severely lowers the regime’s expected legitimacy, forcing it to juggle its limited resources to remain stable. The regime plays with what it has to obtain the maximum legitimacy without risking control.

The (real) opposition’s incentives and strategy

The opposition, on the other hand, faces a plethora of more diverse incentives that vary according to popular support, proximity to the regime, leadership and personal vendettas. While there are differing opinions within the opposition on what the strategy should be, there is a consensus that it must be electoral in nature and should exploit all negotiations and political tools to increase the probabilities of a regime miscalculation.

Unlike the regime, the multi-party opposition often faces opposing incentives and does not have a single mutually-beneficial objective. This dynamic creates a significant vulnerability as the regime uses dirty money, security forces or lawfare to further widen these gaps and break opposition unity. The regime seeks to destroy any possibility of opposition members cooperating with one another in the future to reduce any potential unity in their strategic objectives. Basically, the government nudges the opposition to “exploit” each other and engage in zero-sum games. It has propped up nominally opposition puppet parties, established unilateral negotiations with certain factions while excluding others and has promoted candidacies that could break the unitary coalition. Divide and conquer.

Some avoid the word transition and opt for a slowed reinstitutionalization; others are more confrontational. But all opposition actors assure that the ballot is the way and only by “playing unity” they will have a chance. This unity materializes in the coordination and mobilization of the different factions, creating a positive feedback loop once momentum is gained. Thus, unity creates the worst possible conditions for the regime to implement its strategy. Opposition unity disrupts the Nash Equilibrium, forcing the regime to either yield (as it did in Barinas 2022) or change its strategy (i.e. sabotaging the opposition-led National Assembly elected in 2015).

Strategy realignment: What is happening?

The regime has executed backchannel division tactics, repressive maneuvers, and lawfare operations long before the primaries. But so far have failed to divide the opposition, causing an imbalance in its macro-strategy of obtaining legitimacy without risking stability by engaging in “the most competitive elections” it can afford. Facing the least optimum scenario barely 50 days before the elections, Maduro could be starting to readjust his strategy. 

The suspension of the European Union Electoral Observation Mission (EU-EOM) is the direct response to the Maria Corina Machado (MCM) and Edmundo Gonzalez Urrutia (EGU) alliance and Maduro’s failure to divide the opposition. The government will attempt to engage in fraud or electoral engineering in the upcoming 2024 presidential elections, killing several birds with one stone. 

Chavismo’s multidimensional chess play exploits the adversary’s strategy in three ways. First, it could inject intense pressure between MCM and EGU on the “day after”, potentially leading to a fracture of the leadership of the opposition. Second, it would strongly discourage the electorate from participating in the 2025 local, state and parliamentary elections. Third, it could exploit the general opposition’s rifts.

The EU-EOM presented the most capable and sufficiently funded invited electoral mission in Venezuela. So, reneging its invitation will significantly increase the opposition’s burden of proof to demonstrate fraud and reduce its mediatic impact. 

The following weeks will likely include backchannel conversations with friendly opposition sectors, repression and the arbitrary use of the “law” to prevent the opposition from organizing its witnesses. For example, having governors or party leaders assure that  “any calls to defend the vote must refrain from calling for protests” or “although Maduro committed fraud, we must accept the results and prepare for the 2025 elections”.

People will be arbitrarily detained, as it has happened in recent days, while laws or rulings could be passed to attack the opposition and influences will be pulled to attack funding and organization. This could impact MCM-EGU’s allies and middle level organizers of vote defense strategy, and any individual or organization supporting their campaign, using the “foiled coup” card to detain high level political operatives that bridge the gap between Machado and the Unitary Platform or prosecuting any opposition member calling fraud.

Finally, lawfare –or the use of the judicial system or the “law” to achieve political gains– could be used to legalize the opposition’s MUD card, create new tools through Orwellian laws such as the anti-NGO Law and the anti-fascist law and force participants of the 2025 election to accept the legitimacy of Maduro – similarly to how opposition candidates’ victories in the 2017 regional elections were conditioned on accepting the Constituent Assembly’s legitimacy.

The regime will use backchannelling, repression and lawfare in 2024 with its eyes on parliamentary, state and municipal elections in 2025, seeking to implode the opposition and demobilize the electorate. The 2025 elections will rebalance the power within and between the two wings. Its decentralized nature will likely reward the most popular candidates and create more dilemmas for the regime if it is to survive: from a new wave of bans if Maduro keeps power, to the beginning of the dismantling of the PSUV-State if the opposition survives the readjustment and forces a democratic transition.

If the regime keeps the Executive under its control after the presidential elections, 2025 will be a zero-sum game. If the regime fails to obtain control of local and state governments, the capacity to feed its structure through the existing kleptocratic networks will suffer greatly, weakening the regime’s bases. The opposite is true for the opposition: with more municipalities and states, the parties will grow and the capabilities will greatly increase, continuing the revival process ushered by the primaries and making the threat to the [entire] regime even greater for the next term.

With this in mind –with the strategies now implemented and their readjustment– it all now depends on the “game of unity”. Those who remain united, throwing new strategic dilemmas to its opponents, will prevail in this contest of political jiu-jitsu.