Latin America

Venezuela's Opposition Hurt Its Own Cause

This week's failure at the polls will make it harder to muster voters in 2018.

Fool me once.

Photographer: Juan Barreto/AFP/Getty Images

Almost every day, it seems, Venezuela's crypto-dictatorship manages to outdo itself. Consider the strong showing in last Sunday's regional elections by the government, which has presided over the world's worst inflation rate, national food lines, and hospitals without medicine. "Unbelievable. Absurd. Incredible. Improbable," wrote Raul Stolk, in a caustic column for Caracas Chronicles, "yet not impossible."

Converting the outrageous into business as usual has been routine for the keepers of the Bolivarian Republic, who have clung to power even as they drove what once was considered Latin America’s richest economy off the rails.

So why hasn't the country's democratic opposition been able to parlay the ruinous state of affairs into political capital and vote the bums out of office?

Sure, Maduro's foes are a fractious lot, given to bickering and one-upmanship, with little clarity on what policies or innovations they will champion should they take over. Yet the nation's malcontents have worked hard over the last two years to curb their differences and answer official outrages with impressive street protests, all the while hewing to the rule of law and courting international support from Rome to Washington. "The two most important things the opposition has achieved are unity and mobilizing people to vote," Javier Corrales, a political scientist at Amherst College, told me.

That dedication will be hard to maintain. Even with their popularity bleeding and the economy heading for a second year of double-digit contraction, Maduro and his loyalists have used force or artifice to neuter every opposition gain. If in recent months, the government has criminalized dissent and looked the other way when paramilitary thugs cruised the streets to intimidate anti-Maduro protesters, lately its attempts to tilt the political field have grown more intricate -- witness the procedural irregularities in last Sunday's election.

But the opposition also may have hurt itself. A vocal minority of dissidents called for voters to stay at home. That may explain why voter turnout was passable, at around 61 percent, but fell short of overwhelming -- the threshold you want to fuel a democratic rebellion. There were also reports of a shortage of independent poll monitors, though that may have been because they were turned away by official minders.

"Information is scarce, but what's emerging is that perhaps opposition parties didn't marshal adequate witnesses at the voting tables," said David Smilde, a Venezuela expert at Tulane University. "That would be a historic level of irresponsibility." Breaking with the opposition cries of foul play, two prominent opposition candidates conceded defeat yesterday.

The official election romp hardly snookered anyone. "Most people will see the results of this election for what they are -- the work of an undemocratic government," said Corrales. After a puzzling silence, opposition leaders called the vote a fraud -- although offering no hard evidence -- and appropriately demanded an audit of the backup paper ballots that electronic voting machines also emit, in the presence of international observers.

The larger question is what opponents to the Maduro government will do now. Doubling down on street protests, which have already claimed 125 lives, could provoke more violence. An electoral boycott would be a gift to the government, as the opposition learned in 2005 when acolytes of then-President Hugo Chavez took control of congress. However, by returning to the polls, the regime's opponents risk becoming Maduro's useful idiots. "Whatever the strategy, it's going to be a hard sell to get out the vote again," said Smilde.

For now, look for soul-searching and probably some recrimination in the opposition camp. "There's going to be a backlash among those who favored participation in the elections, and even more political divisions among opposition forces," said Oliver Stuenkel, a scholar of international relations at the Getulio Vargas Foundation in Sao Paulo. "I think people underestimated Maduro's ability to hang on."

Maduro's mandate ends in 2019, and with no relief in sight for what has been described as the world's worst economy, the coming presidential election ought to be the opposition's to lose. But this is Venezuela, where even feckless leaders have an afterlife, and opponents must convince their rank and file that casting a vote isn't a fool's errand.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Mac Margolis at mmargolis14@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    James Gibney at jgibney5@bloomberg.net

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