With just a few weeks to go before the national assembly elections in Venezuela, there is little doubt as to what will happen on election day. Political support for so-called “Bolivarian Revolution” has plummeted since the death of the movement’s founder and former president Hugo Chávez in March 2013 and a continued, rapid downward spiral of the country’s economy. The government has ceased publishing official economic statistics; however, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) recently stated that GDP will drop by 10 percent and inflation will exceed 150 percent in 2015.
Given these conditions, the question is not how the population will vote on election day, but will the government allow the Venezuelan people to actually decide the election?
According to a wide range of public opinion surveys, the ruling party United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) and other small-scale parties allied with the government participating in the elections are polling at historic lows. The Venebarómetro survey firm has the percent of Venezuelans identifying with chavismo (Hugo Chávez’s ideology) dropping from 55.9 in March 2013 to 21.3 in September 2015. Simultaneously, identification with the democratic opposition has increased from 31.6 percent to 68.3 percent.
Public opinion analyst Alfredo Keller has argued that since Nicolás Maduro assumed the mantle as Chávez’s heir in January 2013, positive identification with PSUV has fallen. According to Keller, 50 percent of Venezuelans claimed to support PSUV in December 2012; by September 2013 that support had dropped to 18 percent.
The trends have also been shown by Datanálisis, another polling firm. According to Datanalsis’s surveys, at the time of Maduro’s election in April 2013, political identification with the “Bolivarian Revolution” reached 44.4 percent. Last July (2015), PSUV identification had dropped to 20.6 percent and has continued to decline.
What do these numbers tell us? For one, the results on election day seem clear. Voters will punish Maduro, even though he is not a candidate himself, by voting against PSUV assembly candidates. If the government allows a free and fair election, Maduro’s low popularity will finally drag PSUV to an electoral defeat on December 6th.
The question is whether, in seeing the writing on the walls, the government will allow a free and fair election that sends a strong popular condemnation of its agenda and performance. Whether in use of public resources for partisan campaigns or by manipulating media, PSUV candidates are not playing fair.
But even assuming that the government—in some corrupted form—allows an election that delivers a popular defeat, what will Maduro and his chavista supporters do? And, even more important, what will happen the day after?
The ruling party and the Venezuelan military leaders are likely considering two choices. Up until now, the military has been closely aligned with Maduro, even assisting in the repression of demonstrators between February and June 2014.
These are two possibilities:
The democratic option: Should the PSUV accept electoral defeat, the party can continue being a long-term political power in Venezuela, even with the National Assembly controlled by opposition forces. The military will have an essential role in enforcing the decision of whether the government will accept—or be forced to accept—Venezuelans’ opinions expressed at the ballot box. The recent retirement of a dozen judges of the Supreme Court of Justice in order to replace them before December 6 elections, reflects on how chavismo is preparing for the defeat in December 6 elections. The government is preparing a court more stacked in its favor just in case the PSUV lose the the power to confirm future appointees: better to get a new stacked court in place just in case.
The authoritarian option: Electoral manipulation. PSUV and the military leaders could opt to not acknowledge popular will, thus leading the country to a path where power would be exercised in an open dictatorship, albeit with an electorally-elected president. PSUV leaders could acknowledge the party’s electoral defeat, but with Maduro still in power and before the outgoing Assembly leaves, it could neuter the National Assembly, stripping it of power and consolidating legislative powers and responsibilities in the hands of Maduro. If this were to occur, the government would also like opt to incarcerate more political leaders and ban opposition political parties.
Though these elections will lack independent international observation, the political cost of a possible fraud has increased in the eyes in the international community. Latin American countries are no longer supporting the Venezuelan government unanimously, as they did during the Chávez era. Venezuelans, even including chavistas, are forecasting a victory of the opposition in the country. The general sentiment will make it more difficult to steal the election. But what will happen the day after is still up in the air.
Andrés Cañizález is a professor and researcher at the Catholic University Andres Bello in Caracas. You can follow him on Twitter at: @infocracia.