International media coverage of the December 6th Venezuelan legislative elections has centered on national polls showing disapproval of the government, concern about the government’s resistance to broader election observation, and/or the harsh treatment of some members of the opposition (which has included both imprisonment and murder).
Those issues are very important. Chances are good that the opposition Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) will win a majority of votes. In presidential democracies, midterm elections often become a referendum on the president to some degree, and President Maduro is not popular.
Nonetheless, a huge opposition victory is no guarantee, and here are some areas to watch beyond the typical headlines to understand why:
Watch the local results. National polls obscure strong regional differences. Malapportionment is a feature of Venezuelan legislative elections, meaning that electoral rules are drawn in a way that gives the same number of seats to less populated, rural, and pro-Chavismo states as it does to more populated, urban, and pro-opposition states. In the 2010 legislative elections, the PSUV (the Chavista party, led by Maduro) won 48 percent of total votes, but gained 58 percent of the total seats. The opposition won 47 percent of the vote but only 39 percent of the seats. Prominent Venezuelan pollster Luis Vicente León has called that gap the main uncertainty of this election. A big question is whether the opposition has managed to gain many new rural voters.
Watch out for focusing on presidential disapproval too much. President Maduro’s current approval rating is low at 32 percent, but that is an 11 point improvement from the previous month. Maduro’s many self-inflicted wounds are easy for the opposition to point to, but its leaders have been much less effective in uniting and crafting a message that is not simply anti-Maduro or anti-Chavismo. And to be frank, given the condition of the economy, an approval rating of 32 percent is pretty remarkable. Expressing disapproval with the government is not the same as deciding to vote for the opposition, which has only just above majority approval.
Watch voter turnout. It is likely the opposition will win a majority, but the size of that majority matters a lot for getting things done in the legislature. Roughly 20-30 percent of Venezuelans respond that they don’t know who they’ll vote for or say they will vote for independents. We have no way of knowing which direction they will go, or if they may just stay home.
Venezuelans who are neither with the government nor with the opposition are known as “ni-nis” (in Spanish, this translates literally as “neither-nors”). They are the least likely to vote. If ni-nis abstain from voting, the government (which is mobilizing its own voters intensely) will likely benefit. In short, a lot of Venezuelans will be holding their noses when they vote, and for some unknown number the bad political smell will keep them away.
Watch for violence. Outright fraud is not likely, but intimidation and possible violence is. On the one hand, the government has taken major risks before, most notably the imprisonment of opposition leader Leopoldo López, so it is possible Maduro and the government will also risk the potential backlash from violence on election day to ensure the PSUV maintains its hold of the legislature. On the other hand, if there is no violence, then the opposition will find it much harder to label the elections as illegitimate if it does not win a large majority.
Watch the government’s reaction. If the opposition does indeed win a majority, then the government’s immediate response will tell us a lot about what the following days and months will hold. For comparison, in Argentina, Mauricio Macri defeated his Peronist opponent just last month. The incumbent Peronist President Cristina Fernández remained subdued, even on Twitter, where she periodically goes on multi-tweet rants. She did not dispute the election or lash out. That bodes well for political stability in a time of transition. In Venezuela, the mainstream media has made much of Maduro’s hints at governing with a “civil-military union,” but for now we don’t know what that means or if he is even serious.
Venezuelan voters have a lot to consider. The country is facing serious problems and the government is unpopular as a result. That alone doesn’t mean the government is going to suffer huge losses in this election. If it does, that means the opposition overcame malapportionment, relatively low popularity, and it managed to win over the ni-nis, while the government respected a loss of power. The stakes are high on December 6th.