Can Nicolás Maduro Win The Venezuelan Presidential Elections?

The electoral playing field for July 28 remains full of obstacles that Maduro could use to his favor, even if PSUV’s grassroots structure is considerably weaker than during the Chávez era

The uncertainty surrounding July 28th —and what may happen between now and the election— continues to hover María Corina Machado’s massive rallies in rural Venezuela, the favorable position of opposition front-runner Edmundo González Urrutia reported by local pollsters, and the rawboned campaign of the ruling party. It is relevant to remember the annus horribilis of 2017, when polls gave the opposition a 2-1 lead for the regional elections.

Even so —and in the midst of the weakening, confusion, and disorganization of the dissidence that year— the PSUV managed to snatch 18 governorships (including Bolívar, thanks to the manual tallying fraud against opposition candidate Andrés Velásquez). Given these circumstances and recent history, can Nicolás Maduro be the one who “miraculously” gets more ballots, maximizing his resources and the deployment of his cadres at the end of July?

In an interview with El Estímulo earlier this month, González Urrutia expressed confidence in his support levels and in the opposition’s ability to extend its machinery of witnesses, volunteers and comanditos on July 28th. The statement raises several questions for the opposition: Where is the coalition standing with regard to its electoral organization? In what areas are they still vulnerable? How can the coalition manage the risks and defend against potential attacks from Madurismo in the coming weeks?

Surely this government, tired of surviving for 25 years, deserves the benefit of the doubt once again. It is delusional to believe that the majority that claims to prefer González Urrutia will be able to vote for him without obstacles.

The risk that the opposition will not be able to capitalize on 28J lurks in three scenarios —which could combine with each other— before, after, and during election day.

First, the Supreme Tribunal of Justice could invalidate the MUD card shortly before the 28th, giving opposition parties little room to inform supporters that they must vote using other cards. Second, it could resort to a more abrupt move: to challenge the results in the event of a narrow victory for González Urrutia. Finally, they can postpone the elections due to an “exceptional” situation in the disputed Essequibo region. 

Such scenarios are much more linked to the arbitrary behavior of the ruling elite than to the organizational capacity of the opposition, which is not infallible and still has pending tasks to defend voters on election day.

The distortions of the 2024 electoral registry

The first step to weaken the opposition vote was completed during the voter registration process abroad, where only 69,189 people will be able to vote. This is equivalent to approximately 1.7% of the total number of potential voters outside Venezuela. Having about 6 million people in the diaspora, and a dented mobilization capacity compared to before the humanitarian crisis, the number of real voters is far from ideal.

The risk that the opposition will not be able to capitalize on 28J lurks in three scenarios —which could combine with each other— before, after, and during election day.

Although the final Electoral Registry has 21.32 million registered voters, a much smaller number of voters is being projected. It is estimated that 4 million people are registered in Venezuela, but they currently live abroad and were unable to switch polling stations due to the limited time and space available, logistical problems, and lack of information shared during the registry’s renewal process. This happened on a large scale in Colombia, for instance, where only 7,200 of the 1.9 million regularized Venezuelans will be able to vote. The number of deceased voters that remain in the registry could be between 100,000 and 200,000. Considering that abstention in the 2012 and 2013 presidential elections was 20% —displaying the highest turnouts in the country’s history— the maximum number of voters for 2024 is around 13.5 million.

Regarding changes in the registry, traditionally Chavista polling stations obtained more transfers than pro-opposition ones. Among relocated and new registered voters, 1,260,484 were registered in sites that have historically favored the PSUV, and 768,061 in sites that have favored the opposition in the past. This may have occurred because the PSUV had better information about available registration sites, and was able to conduct a more effective registration campaign than the opposition. Or also because the population that has switched polling stations (partly thanks to internal displacement) and first-time voters is largely concentrated in poor and rural areas linked to the PSUV. That means, 1.2 million of new or relocated voters will vote on the outskirts of cities and rural areas where the opposition machinery usually struggles to access.

Data from the consulting firm Dinámica Venezuela collected in May suggests that Maduro virtually has 3.67 million ballots guaranteed in the strongholds of the hardline Chavista vote, a figure that is 3.3 million for the opposition. But unlike Madurismo —whose support in “blue territory” is close to none— Machado and González do have supporters in poor and rural areas that have been strongholds of the PSUV. In the traditionally red centers, the opposition could get up to 2.67 million additional votes if the vote-defense organization consolidates in the coming weeks by resisting the PSUV’s tactics and on-site pressures.

PSUV strategies and the state of grassroots Chavista cadres

In elections where the opposition participates, Chavismo’s strategy to undermine its opponents fundamentally consists of two elements that can be topped with high levels of preparation. In opposition-leaning polling centers, the PSUV focuses on producing irregularities to obstruct and slow down voting through its notorious “Operation Tortoise” (Morrocoy). This has implied unjustified delays in the opening of polling stations while hundreds of voters queue and CNE officials refuse to expedite the process. Delays often occur within centers themselves that have lacking or untrained polling station staff. 

And as we all know, the PSUV has run networks of motorists and activists since its inception —the so-called “red dots”— dedicated to intimidating, harassing, and proselytizing around polling sites on election days. These are the government’s main weapons to cheat on the ground (also known as procedural fraud) in a scattered fashion that has been so difficult to grasp and confront.

Voter intimidation, and other techniques of procedural fraud such as the PSUV’s “carousel” —where the red dots retain the Patria card of vulnerable voters heading to polling stations, and then verify for which candidate they voted by receiving receipts— can be neutralized with the presence of witnesses, trained polling site staff, and organized citizens outside voting sites. But in a contest where Maduro will put his presidency at stake for the first time in 11 years, and considering the recent accusations against the opposition over “terrorist acts” and alleged sabotage to the national power grid, we may see more aggressive practices and unprecedented innovations to impede the process in certain areas this time.

However, unlike the glory era of PSUV —when a massive amalgam of actors and militants controlled the streets, distributed goods, and mobilized voters in lower-class neighborhoods and remote corners— the government’s electoral machinery lies at an all-time low. The exodus and grand corruption in the high commands have diminished the bases after Chavista structures proliferated in the 2000s and 2010s. In those days, the PSUV leadership distanced itself and lost control of figures that began to clash with each other in the communities, such as the CLAP bosses, the Misiones coordinators, and the Units of Battle Hugo Chávez (UBCh).

In this context, the ability of Machado and the PUD to mobilize volunteers, train witnesses, and mitigate irregularities will possibly be the decisive factor on the 28th.

The latter, which have been the most basic mobilizing force of Chavismo in parishes and municipalities, have largely disappeared from the campaign speech of Maduro and Diosdado Cabello. In their place, the Military Communal Brigades for Education and Health (Bricomiles) were created to fill the distribution void after the 2021 regional elections, where the PSUV obtained more governorships and mayorships due to the fragmentation of the opposition options, but lost the popular vote. With the Bricomiles, the government has put soldiers to work, clean, and repair in an alleged attempt to recover schools and health centers across the country, but their scope and performance is limited and will hardly serve to narrow the gap on 28J. These same brigades are responsible for carrying out the PSUV’s 1×10 electoral campaign to mobilize committed voters, a strategy that has been modified and criticized on live television by Cabello and Jorge Rodríguez for its inefficiencies.

D-Day challenges

Despite the poor moment of its base, the ruling party is expected to use all available personnel and resources —which still includes evangelical groups, public employees, and colectivos in its ranks— to discourage participation, obstruct the operation of opposition-leaning sites, and drag the largest possible number of voters to historically Chavista centers until the evening of July 28. Voting is usually fast in those sites: located in rural areas or on the outskirts of cities where the population is largely scattered, these polling stations have on average fewer voters per table. On the other hand, traditionally anti-PSUV sites tend to be dense and prone to queuing jams.

In this context, the ability of Machado and the PUD to mobilize volunteers, train witnesses, and mitigate irregularities will possibly be the decisive factor on the 28th. 

Eugenio Martínez, a Venezuelan journalist specialized in elections and the voting system, suggested two weeks ago that the opposition had identified 87% of its flock of witnesses, a figure currently being adjusted after witnesses were banned from being in polling stations where they are not registered to vote.

The opposition’s street structure —the mass of comanditos and the 600K Network— will need to continue growing and preparing to encourage and protect voters in isolated communities, ensure the smooth functioning of large polling centers, and combat the pressures of pro-Maduro actors in their surroundings. If this doesn’t happen, and if the PSUV manages to hinder participation in the coming weeks, the opposition may not get a sufficiently wide and convincing victory, or may simply fall short.If one certainty exists about 28J (and all the sources and experts approached for this work agree on that), it is that Maduro would not compete believing he will lose easily, and will do everything in his hands to survive election day and beyond. D-Day will be long, and we will probably spend more than a single night watching the CNE’s balcony on television. Scenarios akin to Barinas in 2021 or Bolivia in 2019 cannot be ruled out, where the CNE would not announce results alleging that many polling tables are yet to transmit, and a final statement from Elvis Amoroso would be postponed until the ruling elite decides. But if the opposition can mobilize and take to the streets peacefully and in large numbers —protecting the voting sheets and ballots, and displaying the desire for political change— Súper Bigote will run out of options.