Venezuelans have grown used to elections, but despite the upcoming parliamentary elections being the seventeenth national elections in as many years, the likely outcome is being keenly watched.
Since late president Hugo Chavez was elected in 1998, Venezuelans have voted in five presidential elections, five parliamentary elections, six national referendums and numerous regional and municipal elections.
Of the national elections, all but one of the referendums has gone the way of the ruling party. Since Chavez’ first electoral victory his party has never lost control of either the presidency or the National Assembly (Asamblea Nacional).
With such a history of success the result of the December 6th parliamentary elections would seem to be a foregone conclusion; on the ground, though, there is great uncertainty about what will happen.
In a deeply divided country where even in the most casual setting an objective political conversation is impossible, it is both the strongest supporters and strongest opponents of the government who believe victory is inevitable for the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela – PSUV).
Those vehemently opposed to the government have claimed that every election victory has been fraudulent and that the December elections will be no different, whilst impassioned government supporters cannot believe that defeat is a possibility.
Despite these polarised positions, there are many signs that an opposition victory is possible, or, rather, that the government might be defeated.
There are three main issues that are causing the government problems: Hugo Chavez, the economy and crime.
Current President Nicolas Maduro has never sat quite as comfortably in office as did his predecessor.
Although Maduro gained legitimacy when he won the presidential elections in 2013 following Chavez’s death in office in March of that year, his margin of victory over Henrique Capriles Radoski was a mere 1.49%, whereas Chavez had defeated the same opposition candidate by 11% only a year earlier.
Chavez’s shadow continues to loom over Maduro; so much so that the PSUV continues to capitalise on the image of the dead leader. Many candidates for the upcoming elections are using Chavez in their campaign material, and the date of the election, December 6th, marks the anniversary of Chavez’s first presidential election in 1998.
The electorate however is aware that no matter how much the party may call on their previous leader, he is no longer with them, and Maduro’s position as head of the party does not yet inspire many Venezuelans with confidence.
Maduro’s seeming inability to make the Chavista movement his own has been coupled during his presidency with discontent as the country suffers from ever-increasing inflation and crime rates.
The World Economic Outlook Report published by the IMF in October 2015 estimates that the country’s GDP will contract by 10% in 2015 and 6% in 2016. The IMF further predicts that economic contraction will continue until 2020 when growth will reach zero.
The same report estimates that inflation will reach 159% in 2015 and 204% in 2016; whilst unemployment will increase from 14% this year to 28% by 2020.
Anecdotal stories flesh out these figures: a rumour starts that the supermarket has milk and, before anyone has confirmed it, the queue already stretches round the block. A relative is coming from overseas and the list of medicines they are asked to bring with them is endless. After a trip abroad Venezuelans come home with their suitcases filled not with souvenirs but with toilet paper.
The government’s response to the economic difficulties has been to introduce price controls which, combined with currency controls introduced in 2003, have seriously undermined the Venezuelan economy.
The currency controls, which fix the exchange rate against the US dollar at 6.3 bolívares as opposed to the unofficial rate of up to 800 bolívares, have led to Venezuela being labelled both the cheapest and most expensive country in the world.
These two control systems have resulted in a booming black market in both dollars and everyday products; a situation which perpetuates the mass shortages, the economic insecurity and ever-present corruption.
Economic difficulties aside, Venezuela is also suffering from staggering crime rates: unofficial figures estimate the murder rate to be as high as 82 per 100,000, while the Venezuelan attorney-general recently stated at the United Nations that the official figure was 62 per 100,000.
This second figure remains ten times the global average, and ranks Venezuela as having the second highest murder rate in the world after Honduras.
It is this context that has led many to believe that the December elections are the opposition’s best chance at victory since 1998.
Recent polls suggest that between 36 and 56% of people will vote for the opposition. Perhaps more worrying for the PSUV, though, are the figures which suggest that between 70 and 80% of the electorate are dissatisfied with Maduro’s performance as president.
As suggested by this, the results of the December elections are being considered by many commentators as a protest vote against the government rather than a vote in favour of the opposition.
Despite having had years to formulate a coherent strategy, the main opposition party, the Democratic Unity Roundtable (Mesa de la Unidad Democrática – MUD), remains deeply divided and unable to truly connect with the poorer sectors of society.
Their difficulties aside, the opposition has recently regained some momentum. A new leader, Jesús Torrealba, has been appointed to bring the different factions together. The sentencing of one of the main opposition figures, Leopoldo López, to almost 14 years in prison in September 2015 has also meant increased sympathy and support for MUD.
Torrealba is confident that the opposition can win a majority in the new National Assembly. He told a Spanish newspaper that “the margin of victory remains to be seen. We need a majority of between 60 and 65% to bring about the radical changes and solutions that the political and social drama that Venezuelans find themselves in need”.