This is the final part of a three-part series about elections held in times of Covid-19. The previous part can be found here.
By Nina Kaufmann
When Venezuelans go to the polls on December 6, it is to elect a new parliament after a rather disputed election campaign. Not only has the opposition announced an election boycott, citing fraud and irregularities – external actors such as the US, the EU and various human rights organizations have also voiced their concerns regarding the fairness of the upcoming vote. Still, Venezuela’s parliamentary elections are scheduled to be held coming Sunday. And the stakes are high. President Nicolás Maduro can take back control in the National Assembly – the only government branch that is currently in the hands of the opposition. This would mark a clear step towards a more authoritarian Venezuela, a country that is already politically and economically shattered.
Since 2018, when socialist party leader Nicolás Maduro claimed to have won presidential re-election, Venezuela’s already notable political crisis has been growing deeper. Maduro’s victory was rejected by the opposition, who considered the elections as fraudulent. As a result, opposition leader and speaker of the National Assembly, Juan Guaidó, proclaimed himself as acting president in early 2019. Over 60 countries around the world supported his self-proclaimed interim presidency, and Guaidó has thereafter been considered Venezuela’s legitimate head of state by a substantial part of the international community.
President Maduro however, does not seem to care much about legitimacy. Despite the upcoming elections being highly questioned, nationally as well as internationally, Maduro is aiming for victory – presumably a rather easy one, considering that the opposition is not competing. If Maduro’s socialist party (PSUV) wins back the majority in parliament, lost in 2015, this would secure total power for Maduro, and imply that Guaidó would lose his political influence.
Some argue that the election boycott is a mistake, and will simply lead to the opposition losing the little decision-making power it still has. In the 2015 parliamentary elections, already then accused of being rigged by the incumbent, the opposition still won a majority in the National Assembly. Without participating in the disputed 2015 elections, Guaidó would not have been able to rise as a key political player. Ahead of the upcoming vote, 27 political parties, including the four largest opposition groups, signed an agreement to not participate in the elections. While having strong arguments for their abstention, citing irregularities and fraud, the boycott ultimately gives the incumbent president free hands to claim power.
However, even if all parties were to participate in the upcoming elections, the political playing field would be heavily skewed. Guaidó and his allies may have support from the international community, but Maduro has the mandate to control big parts of the Venezuelan political system. He has the “guys with the guns”, as journalist Mac Margolis phrases it, and rules over most governing bodies. The Supreme Court, under Maduro, has made the opposition-tinged National Assembly impotent during the last years, blocking most of its decisions. Ahead of the 2020 elections, the Supreme Court also appointed new members of Venezuela’s Electoral Council – a task that is supposed to lay in the hands of the parliament, and has strong influence on the execution of the elections.
The upcoming legislative elections are not directly about the presidential power, but still, it seems like election day will revolve mainly around the power-balance between the incumbent and the self-proclaimed president. Further, the results will determine the way forward for Venezuelan democracy. If Maduro wins power over the National Assembly, Guaidó will lose his position as president of parliament, and thereby his legitimacy as interim president of Venezuela. In this case, it makes little difference whether the international community views the elections as legitimate or not – it will be hard for governments to still openly support Guaidó as Venezuela’s head of state.
Venezuela, a country of almost 30 million people, is in the midst of a multi-dimensional crisis. Already before the Covid-19 pandemic, the economic struggles were significant. The pandemic has made issues of unemployment and basic supply shortage grow even deeper. Thousands of citizens lack food and other necessities, and the humanitarian consequences of the wrecked economy are substantial. 4.5 million people have left the country during Maduro’s term of office, due to the inferior living conditions that the crisis has caused.
What Venezuela certainly does not need, is a further authorization. The economic and humanitarian crisis wrecking the country is not a result of natural disaster or violent conflict, nor a pandemic, but of political malpractice and the breakdown of democratic institutions. Venezuelans are starting to lose hope for the power-shift that Guaidó promised in 2015, and the upcoming elections will presumably lead the country even further away from a political change. The international community needs to increase the pressure on the Maduro rule, and get better at protecting the democratic forces within the country, the Organization of American States (OAS) proclaims. But such an appeal is of course not problem-free. Maduro does not stand externally unsupported, with states such as Russia, Iran, Cuba, and China having his back.
Holding elections amid a pandemic is a challenge itself, but Venezuela’s challenges stretch way beyond Covid-19. No matter the results in Sunday’s legislative elections, the urgency of political change will remain. As of now, unfortunately, this seems to be rather far out of reach.
Illustration: Aina Olsson