Venezuela’s elections are just a new way for Maduro to cling to power

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Nicolás Maduro, president of crisis-stricken Venezuela, will run for reelection in Venezuela in 2018, Vice President Tarick Al Aisammi announced in a Nov. 29 press conference.

Just a few months ago, it would have seemed unlikely that the Maduro regime would opt for elections as a way to hold onto power. After three years in office, Venezuela is in full political and economic meltdown, with hyperinflation expected to top 2,300 percent this year.

Facing a 20 percent approval rating, in October the government unilaterally canceled a presidential recall referendum called by the opposition. It also put off gubernatorial elections, originally scheduled for December 2016, for nine months.

But when they were finally held, on Oct. 15, Maduro’s Socialists saw surprising success. In an election widely denounced as fraudulent, three-quarters of states in Venezuela elected governors from the ruling party.

Now, according to analysis from the Political Studies Center at Andrés Bello Catholic University, where I am director, Maduro will once again make use of voter frustration and confusion to take on its opposition at the ballot box.

First up: the country’s Dec. 10 mayoral elections. If the Socialists win big there, I expect Maduro will call an early presidential election in the first half of 2018.

Winning by not losing

Despite the Maduro regime’s lack of popular support, I believe that ruling-party mayoral candidates could actually triumph in upcoming elections.

The regime has clearly been reprising the two tactics that worked for him back in October: suppressing turnout among opposition voters and using pork-barrel incentives to motivate his own base.

In other words, Maduro’s electoral strategy seems to be less about winning democratic legitimacy than about ensuring that his opponents lose it.

Maduro has doled out favors to promote loyalty to his regime. Reuters
Abstention should be what most concerns Venezuela’s beleaguered opposition movement. Post-election analysis of October’s regional elections shows that abstention – in large part due to voter suppression and manipulation – played a major role in the Maduro regime’s big win.

The regime-controlled National Electoral Council used dirty tricks to confuse voters. It kept candidates who’d withdrawn from the governor’s race on the ballot and relocated voting centers in opposition-dominated areas into high-crime neighborhoods just hours before voting began.

The government also influenced voter opinion using disinformation. Spreading fake news about having purportedly reached agreements with opposition parties, it stoked doubt among the many Venezuelans who oppose all engagement with Maduro’s authoritarian regime.

This split the opposition in the October elections. While some Venezuelans still see democratic elections as the only way out of this crisis, many others accused opposition parties of complicity with the regime and refused to vote.

All the while, the government was persecuting popular opposition leaders, disqualifying them from running.