Running on anything but your record

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, March 24, 2015


When the overwhelming majority of the population thinks the country is heading on the wrong direction, the incumbent government will always want to run on anything but its own record.  Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro will face the upcoming legislative elections in the direst economic and political circumstances.  As it looks increasingly likely that opposition will win the yet-to-be-scheduled election, the government is desperately seeking an adversary that it can actually defeat. In the coming weeks, the Venezuelan government will try to convert the upcoming election into a referendum between supporting Venezuela and supporting the United States.  If that fails, then Maduro might try to polarize the political arena so as to make it impossible for a peaceful election to be held. After all, for not-fully committed democrats, not holding an election is way better than losing one.


After years of economic mismanagement, falling oil prices have sent the Venezuelan economy on a downward spiral. Inflation is out of control. Food shortages abound. The government has responded by modifying exchanges rates to facilitate the importation of food. But the excessive regulations and unenforceable price controls have created a massive black market.  As the situation continues to worsen, President Maduro has become increasingly paranoid about his support base.  Maduro asked the National Assembly for special decree powers to govern for the rest of the year. Since the PSUV controls 98 of the 165 seats in the unicameral Congress, the request was granted.  Now, Maduro does not need to consult with the National Assembly to adopt new policies and implement reforms to face the mounting economic challenges.


Though decree power is a recourse that exists in several Latin American constitutions—and, in the past, democratic presidents have used it to lead their countries in times of turmoil—Maduro’s decision to ask for decree powers shows a new level of desperation.  The irony is that the problem in Venezuela is not legislative obstruction to the president’s plans.  After all, Maduro commands majority support in Congress.  The problem is that Maduro does not have a credible plan to help Venezuela recover. Thus, the last thing that a president without a plan needs is decree powers. 


As he has no long term vision to lead his country back to economic recovery, President Maduro has chosen to find a new enemy to fight against. The United States government—with its history of opposition to President Chávez’s revolutionary agenda—is a natural candidate.  The U.S. made some moves that helped Maduro make Washington the new enemy.  A couple of weeks ago, the U.S. declared the Venezuelan government to be a threat to National Security—a formal step needed for the U.S. to impose sanctions on the Venezuelan government for its systematic violations of the civil rights of opposition leaders.  Maduro wasted no time in responding to what he described as a hostile aggression. Venezuela’s foreign minister, Delcy Rodríguez, speaking to the OAS, declared that “history has shown that declarations like this tend to precede military inventions.” Maduro ordered the Venezuelan armed forces to conduct exercises and prepare for a foreign aggression. Maduro has also wasted no time in demanding opposition leaders to criticize the U.S. and rally behind him against what he considers a foreign aggression.


The opposition has denounced that Maduro is looking for an excuse to cancel the yet unscheduled legislative elections. Last held on September 26th of 2010, the elections will allow Venezuelans to choose the 165 member of the unicameral Assembly.  To be sure, the electoral map is distorted to favor areas where the PSUV is strong. In 2010, with 48.2% of the vote, the PSUV received 59% of the seats. The opposition, with 47.2% of the vote, only got 38.8% of the seats. Yet, Maduro is so unpopular that the opposition believes it can win an overwhelming majority of votes and seats if the election is held this year.  Many former Chávez supporters will either abstain or vote for the opposition. Since opposition sympathizers know they finally have an electoral momentum, turnout among those who disapprove of the government will be high.  The government has not yet announced an election date. As we are six months ahead of September 26th, opposition leaders are putting pressure on the government to commit to an election day.


In picking a fight with the U.S. and making it seem as if the U.S. is considering a military invasion of Venezuela, President Maduro is trying to convert the U.S. government into his rival for the upcoming election. Since he has reached an all-time low in his approval and opposition leaders are increasingly becoming more popular, Maduro knows he is unlikely to lead his party to an electoral victory. Thus, he is currently trying to escalate tensions with the U.S. to avoid setting a day for the legislative election. After all, he thinks that it is better for him to be accused of lacking democratic credentials than to lose a legislative election and set himself up the opposition-controlled Assembly to convene a presidential recall referendum in 2016.