Can Venezuela's Maduro Afford to Hold Elections?

4 MINS READMar 20, 2015 | 08:52 GMT
Can Venezuela's Maduro Afford To Hold Elections?
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro shakes hands after speaking outside the presidential palace in Caracas on March 18, 2015.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro is facing a major political dilemma. He must decide whether he can afford to hold legislative elections or delay them until his low public approval ratings recover. The country's deteriorating financial situation threatens to hurt support for the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV). If the party loses its majority in the legislature, the opposition could gain more control over budgetary and political decisions, even opening the possibility of a recall effort against Maduro in 2016.

Delaying or suspending the elections, however, presents even more risk for Maduro and his party. Venezuela's economy is unlikely to recover anytime soon, so dissatisfaction among voters is likely to increase as time goes on. The later an election is held, the worse the PSUV would likely perform. Canceling elections could erode Maduro's support among PSUV members who want to run for office while giving the opposition a focal point to rally around, potentially provoking a crisis even sooner. Between the two options, the Maduro government is indicating that it will hold the elections sooner rather than later. However, it is also forming a backup plan should it need to take more drastic measures to maintain power.

Because there is a lag between when Venezuela sells its oil and when it actually stocks store shelves using the revenue, the country has likely only now begun to feel the full impact of the global drop in oil prices. Venezuela's gold reserves are believed to have fallen to $13.5 billion after a rumored sale of $1.5 billion in early March. The revenue shortage has hurt Maduro's ability to manage Venezuela's economic and political crises through the populist measures that he and his predecessor, Hugo Chavez, relied on to maintain support.

Dollar scarcity is hurting Venezuela's ability to import food and consumer goods, leading to shortages and newly implemented systems for rationing. Maduro can devote some money to turn popular dissatisfaction with the government around. Still, he does not have enough to buy his way out of the situation as he did in 2013 when he seized consumer electronic stores and forced them to sell their products below the state-mandated price.

Because Venezuela does not have any sources of immediate economic relief to offset the loss in oil revenue, there is a serious risk the shortages will eventually spark protests and looting. Measures that would contain the economic crisis and raise revenue, such as lowering subsidies for gasoline, could inflame public sentiments. The economy will probably continue to deteriorate, and the PSUV will lose popularity, making a delay to the elections an unattractive option.

Maduro's New Enabling Law

As the number of economic options to manage the country's political disaffection shrink, the Maduro government is looking for new ways to ensure its survival. The National Assembly approved an enabling law March 15 that will allow Maduro to rule by decree until the end of the year to "defend the peace and security" of the country. Maduro said the measure was necessary in response to U.S. sanctions placed on seven current and former members of the government, but critics allege the law is an attempt by Maduro to consolidate power during a difficult time.

Still, the enabling law gives Maduro options to manage potential dissent and justify his actions as a broad defense of the country against the United States. It may also allow Maduro to reconfigure electoral institutions and redraw voting districts to improve the PSUV's outcome in the eventual contest.

Party Behavior

The coming months will test Maduro's rule, and maintaining unity within the PSUV will be paramount. The party is a factional organization that has maintained its unity in the past, principally because it was popular enough to win elections. Having lost that popularity, stronger factional tensions may emerge, but for the moment, the leadership is holding together. Maduro has played up and capitalized on the external threat posed by the United States to maintain party cohesion. His PSUV partners in government, particularly National Assembly speaker Diosdado Cabello and Vice President Jorge Arreaza, were instrumental in submitting the enabling law to the legislature, demonstrating political coordination among the leadership in favor of helping Maduro rule, at least for now.

Canceling elections in an attempt to hold on to power, however, could threaten PSUV cohesion. The move could create dissent within the party if citizens protest, and PSUV members who expected to stand for election could become alienated.

A decision to cancel elections altogether could also provide the unifying rally point the opposition requires. The opposition is divided and has had difficulty staging widespread protests so far. As the economic situation deteriorates, more people will become upset with the effect it has on their daily lives. Removing the ability to enact change through democratic elections would leave citizens with only one option: protests against the government. Furthermore, suspending elections could attract more sanctions from the United States.

Venezuela's Indications

It appears Venezuela is aware of all the drawbacks canceling elections would bring. Logistically, the country is showing signs that it is on track to hold polls. The opposition Popular Will party of Leopoldo Lopez and the Democratic Unity Table of Henrique Capriles Radonski will hold primary elections April 19 and May 7, respectively, and the PSUV has scheduled its elections for June 4. The National Electoral Council has begun training poll workers to operate the advanced fingerprint-identifying touch-screen electronic voting machines the citizens use.

In the past, Venezuela has invited the Carter Center to monitor its elections and deem them credible. Another sign that the country is serious about going through with the polls would be contacting the organization to provide its services again. Maduro will continue to face economic constraints and political incentives to avoid unnecessary conflict within his party and from the opposition. Ultimately, holding the elections on time still looks like the most manageable of the difficult options available to Venezuela.

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