Keeping Venezuela's Elections Democratic

Winning isn't even half the battle.

Photographer: Wilfredo Riera/Bloomberg

The world's biggest oil reserves happen to be in the country with its worst economic management. Venezuelans deserve better, but they'll need their neighbors' help to get it.

QuickTake Venezuela: The Price of Revolution

Elections for Venezuela's unicameral legislature are Dec. 6, and the opposition to President Nicolas Maduro and his ruling United Socialist Party is leading in the polls. Maduro is doing his best to prevent an opposition victory -- not just gerrymandering districts, dominating the airwaves, and creating deliberately confusing ballots, but also imprisoning or disqualifying opponents. Moreover, polls can't account for either the complex workings of National Assembly voting (a mix of proportional and direct representation) or the ruling party's creeping takeover of Venezuela's once-vaunted electoral mechanisms.

Whatever happens, though, one thing is clear: Venezuela cannot continue like this.

Venezuela's economy will shrink by 10 percent this year, and its inflation rate will hit 159 percent -- both world-beating badges of dishonor. The plunge in the price of oil, which accounts for about half of fiscal revenue, 95 percent of exports, and about 15 percent of gross domestic product, has also left the country dependent on Chinese loans to stave off default.

Labyrinthine controls on currency and prices have turned everyday life into a scavenger hunt for eggs, bread, medicine and other daily necessities. Rich cronies have cornered government-run markets. The poor make do by reselling their subsidized goods in the black market. Venezuela's middle class, meanwhile, sinks further into debt and despair, or emigrates.

Maduro has responded to discontent with his typical mixture of bluster and repression. Aside from his electoral chicanery, he has manipulated Venezuela's judiciary, intimidated journalists and human rights activists, and declared an unwarranted state of emergency in 24 municipalities. To stoke nationalist fervor, he's picked fights with Colombia and Guyana, and accused the U.S. of waging “total war” against Venezuela.

Meanwhile, the Organization of American States is rightly worried that next month's elections won't be free or fair. Maduro could allay these concerns by agreeing to allow election observers from the OAS or the European Union. That's unlikely, so the hemisphere's democracies need to be prepared for the worst-case scenario: a contested election result that leads to unrest or reprisals.

Merely documenting any abuses could help the OAS come to agreement on any necessary intervention -- economic sanctions, say, or a diplomatic freeze. More broadly, Venezuela's neighbors must hold it to account for the corruption and lawlessness that have made it a hub for drug trafficking.

Notwithstanding the polls, the opposition is unlikely to win a supermajority that would let it either remove government ministers or rewrite the constitution. But a shift in the assembly's balance of power could transform what has been a rubber stamp for the destructive continuation of Chavismo into a forum for constructive debate and change. That would be a good start in bringing Venezuela back from the brink.

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