The National Assembly elections due to take place in Venezuela in December 2015 could seriously test the ruling Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV) that has not tasted defeat since a constitutional referendum in 2007.
Faced with this possibility, the government of President Nicolas Maduro appears to be taking increasingly drastic action to maximise its chances of success.
Speculation about the extent to which the government is worried about losing began when the National Electoral Council – Consejo Nacional Electoral (CNE) – continually delayed setting the date for the elections.
After months of opposition from international observers and the national opposition, including a hunger strike by jailed opposition leader Leopoldo López, the 6th December 2015 date was finally announced in June.
Although this means a much shorter campaigning period than normal in Venezuela, there was widespread relief that the election was taking place at all, as fears were mounting that the government would cancel the election rather than face losing.
Since the election date was announced, polls suggest that support for the ruling PSUV – is falling as Venezuelans struggle with mounting shortages, unprecedented levels of inflation and the constant threat of violent crime.
The government also appears to be more aggressively challenging the opposition.
The threats began soon after the June 2015 announcement. Despite claiming “no one has been born who can defeat us at the elections”, in July Maduro stated that in the unlikely instance of defeat there would be a “new revolution”.
In October, Maduro threated to jail Jesus Torrealba, the leader of the opposition coalition Mesa de la Unidad Democática (MUD) – for what he called “rebelión electoral” – electoral rebellion – after Torrealba refused to sign an agreement that the opposition would not challenge the results of the upcoming elections.
Following the arrest and incarceration in a military prison of opposition mayor of Caracas Antonio Ledezma in February 2015 and the sentencing of Leopoldo López, to almost 14 years in jail in September 2015, such threats cannot be taken lightly.
In addition to threats, opposition candidates have also been banned from standing at the elections, for example Maria Corina Machado, who was accused of taking part in violent anti-government demonstrations in 2014.
The government has also tried to ensure they win the election through other means.
These range from benign claims that ballot papers are confusing and designed to mislead voters into thinking they may be voting for the opposition to far more serious concerns.
There have been accusations that public funds are being used for campaigning, something that is forbidden by the Venezuelan constitution, and that media access is being restricted to favour the government.
There have long been claims that any media outlets against the ruling party are censored or marginalised.
By contrast, former president Hugo Chavez and current president Maduro have always ensured a heavy media coverage: Chavez famously giving marathon speeches in cadena – nationwide broadcasts that were compulsory for radio and television networks to air.
The Maduro government has also been accused of using a recent border dispute with Colombia to bolster support.
A state of emergency was declared in August 2015 in the border state of Táchira. Maduro claimed that up to 40% of Venezuelan goods were being smuggled out through region and that emergency measures were therefore necessary.
The measures, which include a suspension of constitutional guarantees, have been extended to other border states (Zulia and Apure).
The opposition believes this will have a negative impact on their electoral chances in these regions, as public meetings, including political campaigning, have been restricted.
Another recent move is the production of some suspicious population data. According to official calculations, in the months leading to the election, a suburb of Caracas where the opposition is extremely popular will lose a quarter of its population, while neighbourhoods aligned with the government will see their number rise.
In response to this alleged population shift, a pro-government area has gained an extra seat in the new National Assembly, while an opposition area loses a seat.
The opposition is calling this “bachaqueo de diputados” – smuggling of legislators – and arguing that the CNE is aligned with the government in its attempt to rig the elections.
Such accusations are gaining strength now that the CNE has ruled out election observers from both the European Union and the Organization of American States, with only observers from fellow members of Unasur (Union of South American Nations) welcome.
In a recent development, even the Unasur presence has become doubtful, with Brazil stating that they will not send observers to the elections after Venezuelan objected to the presence of a particular jurist.
CNE president Tibisay Lucena stated just one month before the elections: “Don’t have false expectations about the international visitors. The only people who will be able to enter the polling stations are those approved by the CNE”.
Even if the opposition overcomes these obstacles, President Maduro could well find reasons to declare a state of emergency and rule by decree, as he did in 2013, thus negating any critical voices in the National Assembly.