Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro. March 6, 2017. Xinhua/SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved.
The Venezuelan government’s electoral machinery - a ferocious, tightly-knit, socio-political power structure coalesced around the Great Patriotic Pole, led by the most powerful political party in Venezuela’s contemporary history: the PSUV (estimated membership: 5 million) – has set himself an aim: ensuring 10 million votes for President Maduro at the May 20 elections.
This means targeting the so-called Ni-Nis, a large majority of voters who consider themselves “neither Left nor Right”, and whose first electoral choice is a non-existing, independent candidate, not aligned with the traditional parties. Their dislike for Maduro is matched by their distrust of the opposition leaders.
Under Maduro’s mandate, Venezuela has experienced continuous socio-political unrest, hyperinflation, scarcity and crime.
The Conservative opposition is boycotting the elections, which they consider illegitimate for they have been called by the Left-leaning National Constituent Assembly. For this very same reason, it has also withdrawn its support for the best-placed independent presidential candidate, Henri Falcón.
Nevertheless, opinion polls - including official ones - show that a vast majority of Venezuelans wants to vote. Overall voter intention ranges from 65% to 80%.
Electoral non-competitiveness – which is the other main reason why the Conservative opposition is boycotting the elections – means that, even though recent data show Maduro’s approval ratings at their worst (18% to 26%), the incumbent President benefits from the fact that Venezuelans are not provided with candidates they can identify with.
This being so, the government’s electoral machine is targeting the Ni-Nis, who represent an estimated 70% of the population. Converting a sizeable portion of Ni-Nis and other non-believers is a must: their votes will be much needed if Maduro is to be re-elected.
The official candidate
He grew up in a politically-oriented home: in December 1967, his parents took him to a theater in downtown Caracas to witness Beltrán Prieto Figueroa announcing the birth of a political party, The People’s Electoral Movement (MEP), which decades later merged with the PSUV.
Nicolás Maduro, Source: AFT/Contrapunto
By the time he reached the fourth grade in school, he was debating with his teacher, in defense of the Cuban Revolution - which earned him detention time at the school’s library. During his high school years, he joined the Breakup Movement, a political grouping led by Douglas Bravo.
His further ideological and political education did not happen in academia, as he only made it through high school, but in grassroots organizing and active participation in civilian militant causes.
He worked as a driver for the Caracas Metrobus public company from 1991 to 1998. There he became a union leader. After meeting Chávez, his political engagement deepened: he served on several key posts under the Chávez Administrations and Chávez anointed him as his successor shortly before dying. He took office in 2013.
Two benchmarks of Maduro’s mandate strongly influence pro-government voter intent at the upcoming elections: the Local Supply and Production Committees - known as CLAP - and Venezuela’s oil-backed crypto-currency, the Petro.
The CLAP System
The CLAP is a subsidized food supply and distribution system through local networks. It was developed and launched in order to alleviate the food crisis, and it benefits 4 to 6 million families from the most vulnerable strata of the population.
The system has been under close public scrutiny, as corruption has tainted its dealings. President Maduro has acknowledged the problem, and pledged to do justice.
Apart from the political Right, some sectors of the critical Left have highlighted the shortcomings of CLAP as a social control and patronage system which, according to them, establishes a “food in exchange for votes” socio-political bartering.
In any case, it is worth remembering that the PSUV won 18 out of 23 states in last year’s elections, despite the monstrous crises Venezuela is going through.
Sixty-seven year-old Cristobal Ramirez told Agence France Presse the reason why he voted for the PSUV at last year’s elections: “While the opposition hides our food, the government extends its hand with sustenance”. Ramirez, who makes his living as a mechanic, rejects the violence during last year’s street clashes, and he cast his ballot hoping for peace.
Cristobal Ramirez in his shop in Petare. Photo: AFT/Contrapunto
He admits to having toyed with the idea of voting for the opposition, but he refrained from doing so basically because, he says, he has never heard them talk about the poor: “They are not even in power, and yet they treat us badly. Imagine if they won power: they would kill us all!”
El Petro is the government’s oil-backed cryptocurrency, created as an emergency measure aimed at circumventing the so-called “asymmetric economic warfare”. Venezuela is the first country in the world to introduce a government-controlled cryptocurrency.
Whether the Petro will be successful or not, is irrelevant at this moment. What is significant, in the context of the campaign for the upcoming elections, is that this strategy is an intelligent move on the part of the government, for it signals a rejection of the established economic norms and global financial structures, which have proved quite inadequate to deal with Latin American realities.
Chavismo has been grossly underestimated, and this is why it remains in power. Facing US economic sanctions, Maduro took solution-driven action (implementing the cryptocurrency) which was widely perceived as a defense mechanism on behalf of the economic dignity of the people.
This, undoubtedly, strengthened his figure as protector of the masses and heightened his stand as a strong leader looking out for his people’s best interests. This, in turn, raised the collective morale of the PSUV followers, and reassured many among those whom official propaganda calls “Chavez’s Children”.
The Petro is a token of good faith: the solution which the government provides to economic bullying - and, as such, it is an important symbol of economic self-determination.
On Tuesday March 6, the Conservative opposition-controlled National Assembly rejected and annulled the Petro as a financial mechanism, and declared it unconstitutional. On March 19, the US government issued an Executive Order prohibiting business dealings with the Venezuelan cryptocurrency.
Unrest, hyperinflation, scarcity and crime
Under Maduro’s mandate, Venezuela has experienced continuous socio-political unrest, hyperinflation, scarcity and crime. Internal and external factors account for the situation. President Maduro has been sanctioned, and his government openly threatened with regime-change protocol by the CIA. The Organization of American States (OAS) has accused his government of human rights violations, and the Conservative opposition accuses him of being a dictator.
Nevertheless, Maduro is confident that he will be re-elected. In an interview with political activist Marco Enríquez-Ominami, he answered questions about the electoral process and about being labeled a dictator.
The President - in short - said that the people will answer that question with their vote: “As of the year 2000, we’ve had a total of 24 elections, and the revolutionary forces have won 22 out of those 24 elections - including presidential, state and municipal races, as well as referendums (…) This year we are going to have the 25th election in 18 years, and I’m sure that we are about to obtain our 23th victory”.
Upon allegations that the upcoming elections could be rigged, Maduro has requested the UN to send international observers to oversee the whole process. The Conservative opposition, on its part, has asked the UN not to validate what they call “an electoral simulation”.
Venezuelans have the final say.