Amid Economic Slump, Venezuelans Face Off Against Chavismo

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro addresses a rally in front of the National Electoral Council. Caracas, Venezuela, October 26, 2015. (Juan Barreto/AFP/Getty Images)

With the country enduring a prolonged economic crisis, Venezuela’s December 6th legislative elections could provide an insight into whether the policies of former president Hugo Chavez continue to resonate, or if a new pathway can be established. A fair assessment may be difficult, however, with current leader Nicolas Maduro’s administration accused of manipulating the electoral process in its favor.

The National Assembly is currently dominated by Maduro’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), which espouses the so-called Chavismo platform of socialist and populist policies established by Chavez, who died in 2013. The upcoming election comes amid a notable drop in PSUV support, which is at least partly a result of the deteriorating economic situation.

Latin America has experienced a general economic decline since 2013 due to a drop in commodity prices; decreasing demand from its main trading partner, China; a comparative strengthening of the US dollar; and associated increases in unemployment and shortages of basic goods. Nowhere has this been more severe than in Venezuela, where budget revenue is heavily dependent on oil. In 2015, the average crude price has hovered between 40-50 USD, down by nearly half since 2013.

This economic downturn has contributed to negative growth in 2015 and a negative forecast for 2016. It has also threatened the country’s extensive populist social spending policies, including government-directed food distribution. As a direct consequence, Venezuela has experienced several cases of mass looting this year. This is a possible precursor to much more widespread and sustained civil unrest if the economic slide is not halted.

Chavez’s Fifth Republic Movement (MVR) secured 91 of 167 seats in the National Assembly in 2000 and 116 of 165 in 2005. In 2010, this increased to 96 of 165 seats for the PSUV, which Chavez created after the 2007 dissolution of MVR. During all of the past three legislative elections, the PSUV or its predecessor secured sufficient seats to dominate the legislature.

However, recent polling points to the economic decline corresponding with a drop in support for the PSUV and Maduro, who now has the approval of just a quarter of respondents. There has been a corresponding increase in support for the opposition, particularly the Democratic Unity Roundtable, which secured 64 seats in 2010, and could be a possible new power in the National Assembly in 2016. Respondents, mirroring opposition denunciations, have cited shortages of goods, widespread corruption, and high levels of crime, as reasons for turning away from the regime.

For its part, the PSUV is well aware of the economic challenges it is facing and the resultant impact this has had on its ability to remain in power. In an attempt to maintain its grip, it has continued its lavish public spending, at massive cost to the economy, particular to Venezuela’s foreign reserves.

The regime has also moved to restrict the opposition’s abilities to attract support. High profile figures such as Leopoldo López and Antonio Ledezma have been detained, while others, including former allies of the PSUV in the Socialist Tide party, have been barred from running for office. In addition, the government has maintained a restrictive state of emergency in some western states, ostensibly to tackle insecurity and smuggling. Restrictions on public gatherings have been enforced, leading to opposition accusations that the government’s intentions are mostly self-serving.

The government has also sought close oversight of the poll. The largely pro-PSUV National Electoral Council has granted accreditation to “accompany,” but not to critically observe, the election to regional bloc Mercosur, the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of our America, and the Union of South American Nations, all of which are viewed as Maduro supporters.

Brazil’s recent withdrawal from the election monitoring mission, after Venezuela rejected the official nominated to lead the mission, has further heightened concerns that the regime may manipulate results. The Organization of American States—a common monitor of elections globally—has also been refused access. Increasing the electoral tensions further, there are indications that the US could initiate indictments against high-level Venezuelan state officials for their involvement in drug trafficking, including current National Assembly speaker Diosdado Cabello.

These apparently undemocratic PSUV actions have been accompanied by efforts aimed at securing influence in Venezuela’s judiciary. In early October, the appointment of 13 Supreme Court justices was brought forward from 2016. This has been seen as an attempt to prevent any opposition-held legislature from appointing officials opposed to the regime. It will also allow Maduro to block any opposition attempts to challenge the results through the courts. This was previously done following the 2013 presidential election, when Henrique Capriles Radonski was unsuccessful in calling for an audit of Maduro’s narrow 1.5% margin of victory.

Regardless of the outcome of the upcoming polls, Venezuela is likely to face a tumultuous 2016. Even if opposition parties triumph, they are unlikely to be able to reverse Venezuela’s economic slide, given the extensive power the PSUV and executive wield over the judiciary and various other state institutions.

Dwindling foreign reserves also mean the PSUV will have to curb its lavish spending programs, which would lead to a further loss of support among the party’s grassroots, and a corresponding rise in opposition agitation. Competition within the PSUV will also increase, as elites struggle to secure their interests and influence. Under such a scenario, Maduro could be overthrown or the PSUV splinter, putting the future of Chavismo in serious doubt after a long period of dominance.