August marks the beginning in a decisive stage in Venezuela’s electoral process and, quite likely, the future of elections in the beleaguered country. The December 6th parliamentary elections are only four months away, and there’s a lot at stake. As is usually the case in the run-up to elections in Venezuela, all sorts of predictions about the elections and their outcome are flying around.
Some analysts, such as Gustavo Azócar, are already darkly warning that President Nicolás Maduro’s government may suspend the elections on the grounds of a national emergency. While the charge is extreme, it not can be completely ruled out, especially as the popularity of the governing party, the Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV), plummets in the midst of an economic crisis, with GDP expected to contract by more than 7 percent this year and inflation informally calculated to be in the triple digits.
More likely is that the elections for Venezuela’s single chamber national legislature, the National Assembly, will be held on the promised date. Under what conditions and what happens next, though, is a lot more complicated.
Despite the government’s declining popularity, the election will not be an easy path forward for those opposing the government. The lead-up to election day will test the willpower of the Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (MUD) to maintain its unity and sustain a constructive, unified, attractive front.
One of the challenges will be how the MUD reacts to the series of legal and procedural stumbling blocks the government is throwing in their way. For one, several candidates (Diego Ceballos, María Corina Machado, Enzo Scarano, and others) are facing disqualifications handed down by the Office of the Comptroller General (in violation of the law), and the Supreme Court has issued an order to seize control of the one-time powerful COPEI party. According to the order, the Supreme Court will appoint an interim presidency of the party and suspend candidate nominations. The unified opposition front is also confronting a series of decisions by the pro-government National Election Council (CNE) regarding how the opposition’s single ballot will appear to voters on election day.
For the MUD to address these multiple non-democratic challenges, the trick will be to continue to argue for fairness and the rights of its candidates while also maintaining its cohesion and avoiding getting distracted by each dirty trick the government throws at them.
Beyond these obstacles and distractions— and any others the government is likely to throw up between now and December—the real question will be what will happen after the elections. There are two likely scenarios:
- Democratic Asphyxia: If popular disproval of the government continues, PSUV—and by extension Nicolás Maduro’s administration—will take a beating on election day. If that’s the case, it’s possible that the PSUV and the armed forces could refuse to accept the defeat and respond in different ways that, in a final act, will suffocate Venezuela’s deeply troubled democratic system. This could happen in a number or ways. First, to avoid such a defeat, it’s possible that the government could resort to massive and open fraud on election day. But assuming it does not, there’s also the possibility, either before or after the election—before a new assembly is sworn in—that the current PSUV-dominated National Assembly votes to reduce its own powers, thus leaving the incoming opposition with a neutered legislative body. By committing this parliamentary suicide, the PSUV would create an executive-controlled authoritarian system with many of the democratic formalities, like accepted election results and an elected legislature, while ignoring basic international norms about political and civil rights and the checks and balances of representative democracy.
The other scenario is more optimistic.
- Democratic Transition: Provided that the current rejection of Maduro’s administration continues and the majority of voters supports the MUD’s candidates, the democratic opposition secures a majority of seats in parliament, and—more important—both PSUV and the armed forces adhere to popular demand, the new National Assembly could begin to claw back some of its basic powers over the state and policymaking. This scenario, though, would require the opposition gaining about three-quarter’s of the seats in the Assembly and, once there, both sides—the MUD and the PSUV—agreeing to negotiate and compromise. Sadly, that level of dialogue and negotiation has been lacking until now.
The last scenario would affect other political scenarios post-election, including the possibility of a presidential recall referendum, potential dismissal of cabinet ministers and the renewal of the Supreme Court of Justice and/or National Election Council. But before all that, we need to get to the December 6th elections. Stay tuned.
Andrés Cañizález, PhD, is a professor and researcher at Universidad Católica Andrés Bello (UCAB). You can follow Andrés at @infocracia.