The recent arrest of Caracas mayor Antonio Ledezma without judicial warrant on orders of President Nicolas Maduro has thrown into question the whole idea that Venezuela might even hold elections this coming December. As Nicolas Maduro’s popularity drops further and further (it is currently somewhere in the low 20s) and the country’s economy sinks to ever-lower depths, the regime is becoming increasingly desperate to hold on to power. The jailing of Ledezma can be seen as a shift in the government’s tactics to hold on to power. Whereas Chavismo was previously content with winning elections, the current deadly mixture of high inflation, low gas prices and severe shortages of goods has brought the country to its knees and forced the regime to rethink how it intends to keep the PSUV (the populist-socialist party founded by Chavez) in power.
Given the regime’s proven track record of resorting to arrest of major opposition figures, like Leopoldo Lopez and Antonio Ledezma, as well as its willingness to use violence force to suppress street demonstrations by unarmed citizens (like it did February 2014) – many are beginning to believe that Maduro and the chavistas intend to hold on to power by any means. Furthermore, given the regime’s ideological proximity and alliance with Cuba’s totalitarian Castro brothers, some are beginning to question whether the chavistas are going to finally “cross the Rubicon” and do the unthinkable.
With Maduro’s popularity at record lows and faced with the prospect of a catastrophic defeat in the December elections (it would also be Chavismo’s first electoral defeat ever) it seems that Chavismo has only a few alternatives for holding on to power. Holding a fair election in which opposition parties are allowed to participate without harassment is unthinkable, as it would open the possibility that the coalition of opposition parties (known as the “Mesa de la Unidad Democrática” or “MUD”) will sweep the elections. An electoral defeat in the legislative elections would open Maduro to a vote of no confidence, which would then trigger an early referendum election. Given his extremely low approval ratings he would likely then be routed in a recall election.
Worse still is that a large defeat would mean that the PSUV would lose a disproportionate amount of seats and possibly be relegated to irrelevancy. After the PSUV won an almost absolute majority in 2005 (an election boycotted by the opposition), it moved to rework the electoral rules to reward winners of legislative elections with disproportionate majorities. This explains why after in the 2010 election the opposition was only awarded 64 seats out of 165, even though the opposition won 47% of the vote. For comparison the PSUV was awarded 98 seats – a disproportionate amount that did not reflect the closeness of the election.
But now the shoe is on the other foot and the the electoral rules passed by the PSUV look more and more like a double-edged sword. With the way things currently stand, it looks like Maduro’s party stands to lose… and lose big. According to some estimates, if the election were held today, the regime would stand to lose its majority and be relegated to controlling somewhere between 35 and 55 seats out of 165 – a potentially humbling and embarrassing result for the chavistas - who have never lost an election.
Faced with these prospects, there are only a handful of possible major scenarios that could unfold.
Scenario One: A somewhat fair election is held with some vote rigging (15% chance of occurring)
As mentioned earlier, this scenario would be political suicide for the chavistas. In this scenario, the chavistas allow the opposition’s major leaders (like Maria Corina Machado, Henrique Capriles, and others) to campaign and lead the efforts to defeat the PSUV. But as things currently stand, an election in December would lead to a major rout of the PSUV on election day. The PSUV’s majority would likely be slashed to an insignificant 35-55 seats – a scenario that would leave Maduro open to impeachment and a vote of no confidence. This vote would then trigger a snap election which is likely to end poorly for the chavistas. Even if the government engages in large scale vote rigging, it will likely be impossible to reverse the tide of votes against the PSUV.
A lot is at stake for many in the PSUV – as many high ranking officials in the government have been accused of corruption and drug trafficking. Losing the elections in December would mean that the hour of reckoning has finally arrived. Don’t expect the heirs of Chavez to concede defeat so easily.
Scenario two: Maduro will declare a state of emergency and cancel the elections (50% chance of occurring)
Given Maduro’s rhetoric about the supposed “economic warfare” being waged against Venezuela by the United States, and the recently announced foiling of an alleged coup attempt (all claims which have been widely questioned and poorly supported) it wouldn’t be at all surprising if the regime simply opts for cancelling elections altogether. There would be precedent for this given that Chavez already once called on the National Assembly for emergency powers and that the chavistas have been known to bend the rules or simply ignore the constitution when they see fit.
Scenario three: Allow the election, but jail the opposition’s main leaders before the election (35% chance of occurring)
This scenario is likely given the regime’s willingness to use jail to intimidate and neutralize opposition figures. Leopoldo Lopez, one of the opposition’s main figures, just recently completed one year in jail after leading street protests calling for Maduro’s resignation last February. Caracas mayor Antonio Ledezma was recently jailed and other major opposition figures like Maria Corina Machado and former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles have been threatened with arrest. By jailing major opposition figures on trumped-up charges of corruption or alleged plans to carry out a coup d’etat – Maduro will try to eliminate major figures in the opposition as a way of weakening it before the election and, at the same time, give him the save some face before the international community. The chavistas have been known to make wild accusations of treason and corruption to eliminate political opponents and this would not be anything out of the ordinary.
What is most likely to happen is that the regime will likely resort to a mixture of strategies. As the election draws closer, the regime will probably attempt to land some of its major opponents in jail in a desperate bid to cripple the opposition. If the situation does not improve, it will then move to the second option, which will be to simply cancel the elections by declaring a state of emergency. Holding a fair election is simply political suicide for the PSUV and its leaders.
Both strategies are risky… But then again, things aren’t looking very good for Chavez’s party overall. Resorting to either one would destroy the chavistas carefully-crafted mythos of being a truly democratic people’s movement and would quickly delegitimize Maduro’s already unpopular government.
Is Maduro willing to cross the Rubicon and go where Chavez did not?
Start placing your bets…