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Sep 14, 2015 | 09:15 GMT

6 mins read

Venezuela's Next Election Poses a Double Threat to Leaders

Venezuela's Next Election Poses a Double Threat to Leaders
(GEORGE CASTELLANOS/AFP/Getty Images)
Forecast Highlights

  • If they win control of the legislature in elections on Dec. 6, opposition parties could impede the ability of the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) to pass laws.
  • If the PSUV performs poorly, it could spur other party members to split from President Nicolas Maduro.
  • Ongoing U.S. criminal investigations of Venezuelan officials will put even more pressure on party members to protect themselves from prosecution and potential extradition.

A key Venezuelan legislative election is less than three months away, giving the country's leaders little time to decide how to safeguard against threats to their power. The main threat to the ruling PSUV at this point is the loss of political power it could experience if it loses control of the legislature after the Dec. 6 election. But the party's core leaders face an additional threat: drug trafficking charges in the United States.

The fear of losing political power — and thus immunity from extradition and prosecution — is the likely motivation for party leaders' most recent actions. In recent weeks, the Venezuelan government has closed two major border crossings with Colombia in Tachira and Zulia states and declared states of emergency there. The government has played up the closures as a necessary maneuver to combat cross-border smuggling and crime. But the decision to close the border and provoke a political disagreement with Colombia is part of the PSUV's broader strategy of minimizing future threats to the party's leadership. As the elections approach, the party's top leaders appear to have banded together in an attempt to fend off potential threats to their rule. These members of the party elite will have to decide how to handle the larger question of what happens in case of an electoral defeat.

The Role of the Dispute With Colombia

In recent weeks the government has used the border closures in Tachira and Zulia states — ostensibly to disrupt Colombian organized criminal groups in the region — for propaganda purposes. Caracas has claimed repeatedly that unspecified paramilitary groups at the border are posing direct threats. But the closures are not just propaganda; there is another, more concrete trigger for the crisis between Colombia and Venezuela that directly affects individual Venezuelan elites.

In July, the Colombian Supreme Court decided to extradite two Colombians suspected of drug trafficking activities to the United States. The two men were reportedly involved in trafficking cocaine through Venezuela with the cooperation of unspecified Venezuelan government officials. The border closures, then, could be both a propaganda tactic and a means of pressuring Colombia into abstaining from extradition. The affair resembles the fallout from the 2010 arrest of drug trafficker Walid Makled, whose information about Venezuelan officials' illicit activities led Caracas to negotiate for months with Bogota to return Makled to a Venezuelan prison rather than extradite him to the United States, where his testimony could lead to indictments against Venezuelans.

But this time, the dispute between Colombia and Venezuela has added urgency, given that the election is happening soon and the PSUV could lose control of a branch of government for the first time in 15 years. And time is not on the Venezuelan government's side. With inflation likely exceeding 100 percent year-on-year and food scarcity becoming more common across the country, the possibility of mass voter abstention or of PSUV voters defecting en masse to the opposition is becoming increasingly likely. More than half of voters in a recent Datincorp poll said they would vote for any opposition candidate. Voter support for the PSUV is clearly wavering, and the high inflation, food shortages and high crime rates that have sapped the PSUV's support will not abate any time soon.

Consequently, elections in December could definitively alter the composition of the National Assembly. Depending on how big the PSUV's loss is, the party's previously uncontested rule of Venezuelan institutions could take a significant hit. A loss of the majority in the National Assembly (the ruling party and its allies currently hold 99 of 164 seats) would put the government at risk. If the opposition gains the majority, it may be able to name upcoming National Electoral Council rectors, which could clear the path for a recall referendum against Maduro before the end of his term and could prevent the president and other PSUV leaders from passing legislation at will. Some PSUV officials could be tempted to cancel the election, even at the risk of provoking anti-government demonstrations. If the government chooses this option, it would do so out of desperation.

The Potential Individual Consequences

At an individual level, the potential loss of the National Assembly likely matters greatly to Venezuelan officials who may be involved in criminal activity. For example, losing the position of National Assembly speaker would put Diosdado Cabello at greater personal risk. U.S. authorities are currently investigating Cabello and several other Venezuelan military and civilian officials for their alleged roles in facilitating cocaine trafficking to the United States through Venezuela. His position as National Assembly speaker grants Cabello immunity from potential prosecution and extradition on drug trafficking-related charges. However, considering that the Dec. 6 election could force Cabello out of his post, and that PSUV could end after the 2019 presidential vote, the speaker and other officials probably will have to decide soon how to safeguard their futures.

Venezuelan government officials will have to decide whether to band together after the election or split from the very unpopular Maduro. At the moment, it is clear that Maduro and Cabello are supporting the border closures. Other individuals being investigated for alleged cocaine trafficking activities, such as Aragua state Gov. Tareck El Aissami and National Guard head Nestor Reverol, are directly involved in managing the border closures and related anti-crime operations. But beneath the broad consensus on that measure, rifts are emerging. For example, El Aissami and Maduro appear to disagree over the choice for the crucial post of defense minister. Gen. Vladimir Padrino Lopez has served as defense minister since 2014 and head of Operational Strategic Command, the armed forces' highest level of command, since 2013, but he remained out of public sight between mid-August and Sept. 7. During Padrino Lopez's absence, El Aissami advocated naming Reverol defense minister. According to unconfirmed reports, at the time Padrino Lopez was abroad seeking treatment for cancer, but regardless of the reason for his absence, El Aissami's move suggests that the core group of Venezuelan officials facing the risk of future prosecution is banding closer together in positions of power. It will be crucial to monitor whether such unity lasts after Dec. 6, particularly if the vote goes against the PSUV. 

Lead Analyst: Reggie Thompson

Production Editor: Robin Blackburn

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