Venezuelans before critical presidential elections

According to polls, the main political force in Venezuela today is that of the non-aligned citizens whose first electoral choice is a non-existing independent candidate, not aligned with the traditional parties. Español

Dariana Arias
28 March 2018

Maduro Propaganda for the 2013 Presidential Elections. Source: Wikimedia Commons. All Rights Reserved.

On February 1st 2018, Venezuelan pollster Luis Vicente León, director of the Right-leaning political survey company Datanálisis, who was being interviewed about the upcoming presidential elections, pointed out that there is a sinkhole in the ground of the disillusioned masses.

According to current polls, the main political force in Venezuela today is the non-aligned citizens who do want change, but whose first electoral choice at the upcoming presidential elections is a non-existing, independent candidate, not aligned with the traditional parties.

These voters, commonly known in Venezuela as Ni-Nis, consider themselves “neither Left nor Right” and comprise about 70% of the electorate.

The dilemma that these so-called apoliticals face is whether to cast their ballots at these elections, for no candidate representing their needs is actually running.

They would almost certainly vote against Maduro, but when they turn to the opposition, they find no trustworthy leader there.

These voters, commonly known in Venezuela as Ni-Nis, consider themselves “neither Left nor Right” and comprise about 70% of the electorate. The rest of the population is politically polarized between the Left and the Right of the political spectrum.

On March 1st, the Venezuelan government and a newly-formed independent opposition signed an agreement on electoral guarantees.

The document is a commitment to electoral justice, aimed at encouraging confidence in this year’s electoral process - given the Smartmatic’s electronic voting system fiasco last year and recurring allegations of elections being rigged in the past.

The previous week, Oscar Schémel, director of the Left-leaning pollster Hinterlaces, recalled his long-standing advice to opposition members on how to win: “Don’t do anything: don’t speak, don’t blink, don’t breathe, and you’ll win. Whenever you say something, Maduro’s popularity goes up”.

According to Schémel, data gathered by Hinterlaces show that President Maduro has a 10-12 points lead over Lorenzo Mendoza, the CEO of transnational corporation Polar.

Mendoza is not a candidate, but he has nevertheless been appearing in all the polls as an opposition favorite, reflecting the Venezuelans discontent with the conventional, corruption-stained Right-Left political duopoly. Mendoza is the conceptual figure of the non-existent independent candidate. 

The absence of strong political adversaries, along with changes in the electoral mechanisms, says Luis Vicente León, creates the perfect setting for electoral non-competitiveness - which benefits Maduro, as Venezuelans are not provided with candidates they can identify with, even though recent data, according to León, show Maduro’s approval ratings at their worst: 18 to 26%.

With Lorenzo Mendoza not running, and the two main leaders of the Conservative opposition (Henrique Capriles and Leopoldo López) legally barred from politics, the next candidate to attract strategic support in the polls is former Lara state governor Henri Falcón, the leader of Progressive Advance, an independent opposition political party, who confidently declared in an interview on February 15 that “this government is defeatable”. 

The Conservative opposition’s boycott

Electoral non-competitiveness is one of the main reasons why the Conservative opposition is boycotting the upcoming presidential elections.

Another important reason for the boycott is the fact that these elections were called by the Left-leaning National Constituent Assembly, established last year amidst huge controversy.

Venezuela’s official legislative body, The National Assembly, which is controlled by the Right-leaning opposition since 2015, saw its legislative capacity limited by a ruling of the pro-government Supreme Court.

This generated a power clash between the executive and the legislative branches and this was the reason why a Left-leaning National Constituent Assembly was put in place, so that the executive could bypass the official legislative body.

On January 23 this year, the Constituent Assembly signed a decree calling early presidential elections, moving their scheduled date – they were originally due in December 2018 - to April. The pro-government National Electoral Council fixed a date - April 22 -, and then changed it again to May 20 as a result of a political negotiation between the government and the so-called independent opposition.  

The Conservative opposition, which does not recognize the legitimacy of the Constituent Assembly, is refusing to participate in these elections on the grounds that participation would be tantamount to recognizing its legitimacy.

This, however, is a mega-election, and the risks of boycotting it are significant: in addition to electing the country’s president, Venezuelans will also vote for their representatives at both State and local legislative chambers.

That is, the opposition-controlled National Assembly is also up for grabs – precisely at a time when its members’ approval ratings are at their lowest level.     

The Conservative opposition is not only boycotting the elections, but it is also withdrawing its support for the independent presidential candidate Henri Falcón, who has vowed to reconcile all political factions and has promised that his first decree if elected will be to free all political prisoners, including Leopoldo López, the leader of the very same Conservative opposition which is withdrawing its electoral support from him.

Who is Henri Falcón

Benefitting from some degree of media engagement, Henri Falcón is the only candidate who could theoretically threaten Nicolás Maduro’s re-election.

The presidential candidate of Progressive Advance (AP) is backed by two other center-left forces: the Movement for Socialism (MAS) and some factions of the Social Christian Party (COPEI).

Falcón and his party belong to the so-called independent opposition, a catch-all “socially-efficient” progressive movement.

Falcon’s party was a member of the opposition political coalition Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) until the day he announced his presidential run and the organization disowned him for refusing to boycott the elections.

Falcón and his party belong to the so-called independent opposition, a catch-all “socially-efficient” progressive movement defending the need for national consensus and for transcending ideological dogmatism.

An attorney specialized in labor and public administration law who holds a master’s degree in political science, Falcón comes from a popular family background, he served in the military in his early years, and was elected to the 1999 National Constituent Assembly, which drafted the Venezuelan Constitution, considered to be one of the most progressive constitutions in the world and the crown jewel of Hugo Chávez’s legacy.

He served two terms as Mayor of Iribarren in Barquisimeto (from 2000 to 2008) and was then elected governor of Lara state. In 2010, due to irreconcilable differences with the governing United Socialist Party (PSUV), Falcón published an open letter addressed to former President Chávez renouncing his membership of the party.

The reasons he gave for quitting were excessive bureaucracy, lack of communication, patronage, sectarianism and an erroneous conception of loyalty. In 2012, he founded his current party, AP.

For him, the three most important elements needed in a democratic transitional post-Maduro period are: reconciliation amongst Venezuelans; an inclusive government able to incite trust from the general public; and an all-inclusive debate comprising all sectors of the population in order to discuss the national agenda.

Falcón, who considers himself a progressive, advocates a practice of governance based on justice, solidarity, liberty and social efficiency.

He defends the establishment of a mixed public-private system for the country’s economy and the development of a new political model outside the conventional Left/Right dichotomy - which, he says, has severely damaged Venezuela’s social fabric -, transcending political sectarianism and social separatism.

It is worth noting that Falcón has managed to recruit Venezuelan economist heavyweights who used to work for the Chávez administrations - although President Maduro has already accused some of them of being members of the neo-Chicago Boys’ clan.

Finally, Falcón’s reputation has not experienced any major blows (besides being dubbed “Chavista light” and accused of being a “traitor” by the usual trolls), and no corruption allegations have ever been leveled against him, which is important.

Voter turnout

A number of observers have questioned the validity of the upcoming elections due to the boycott decreed by the Conservative opposition. In the current divisive political scenario, and given the social crisis context, would anyone consider participating in them?

Economist Francisco Rodríguez thinks so. He has been vocal about the data - gathered by several public opinion polls and think-tanks – showing that between 70  and 80% of Venezuelans do want to vote, regardless of their frustration with and rejection of the National Electoral Council.

Furthermore, Rodríguez says, it is a fact that electoral boycotts tend to fail – 96% of them - and some polls are showing a 10-point lead of Henri Falcón over Nicolás Maduro.

Government polls reinforce these data: they show that 66% of the voters in Venezuela want to cast their ballots in the upcoming elections.

The election campaign

The government’s electoral machinery is a ferocious, tightly-knit, socio-political power structure coalesced around the Great Patriotic Pole. At the very top of this structure is the most powerful political party in Venezuela’s contemporary history: the PSUV, with a membership of about 5 million.

If this were not enough to convert the non-believers, government supporters recently announced the creation of the “mother of all social movements”, the so-called We are Venezuela Movement, which will be spearheading the electoral campaign in an effort to convert the Ni-Nis and other independents, whose vote will be much needed.

According to Delcy Rodríguez (who quit the PSUV to lead the movement), the organization will be responsible for assuring Maduro’s presidential victory: “We are committed to ensuring 10 million votes for President Maduro”, she said, leading a door-to-door canvassing campaign across the national territory - that is about half of the registered voters.

The Conservative opposition boycotting the elections has also created a new movement known as Broad Front, with the purpose of attracting everyone opposing the government and establishing a wider opposition movement against Maduro.

It is a strategic move, aimed at joining forces with dissident Chavistas – such as, notably, former Chief of Intelligence (as well as Chávez’s comrade-in-arms) Miguel Rodríguez Torres, who was arrested on March 13 in Caracas on charges of conspiracy, whose political party Broad Challenge All Movement (MADDT) had joined forces with the Broad Front a few days before.

On the very same day, Henri Falcón announced, via twitter, that he was at the UN headquarters in New York and that the following day he would be heading to Washington DC.

Extra-official sources had been speculating about Falcón’s whereabouts, as it had been a rumored that he was to meet with UN high ranking officials in order to request an expert delegation to observe the upcoming presidential elections.

Falcón has pledged to run as long as the elections are clean and international observers are allowed to monitor the process.

Why vote?

Corruption, crime, political turmoil, social angst, scarcity of basic staples, hyperinflation and political divide, are all important factors to consider when thinking about voter intent.

These are factors that directly and indirectly affect the quality of life in Venezuela, leaving an imprint on the potential voters’ collective psyche.

US-imposed sanctions make it harder, if not impossible, for Venezuela to be financially competitive. The Venezuelan state oil industry (PDVSA), historically a major source of national income, has not only been experiencing sanctions but, sadly, corruption too, leaving no piece of that pie for the Venezuelan people.

More raids have been conducted since last year, as the government tries to combat rampant corruption in the Chavista camp.

It should be noted that the Conservative opposition has actively endorsed the sanctions as a mechanism against the government.

Late last year, Eulogio del Pino, the former president of PDVSA, and Nelson Martínez, the Oil and Mining Minister, were arrested on charges of corruption.

A total of 65 top officials were arrested during the corruption crack-down. This is just one of various corruption scandals the Maduro government has had to face.

More raids have been conducted since last year, as the government tries to combat rampant corruption in the Chavista camp - yet, corruption in Venezuela seems a never-ending story.

In Transparency International’s Corruption perceptions index 2017, Venezuela has been ranked 169 (out of 180), as a highly corrupt country. Its perceived public sector corruption score is 18 over on a scale ranging from 0 (highly corrupt) to 100 (very clean).

As far as poverty is concerned, according to the 2017 Survey of Living Conditions in Venezuela (ENCOVI) - an annual survey conducted by top universities in Venezuela -, 87% Venezuelan households experience poverty, out of which 61.2% are in extreme poverty and 25.8% at poverty line.  

The data collected by ENCOVI show that 80% of households experience food insecurity: in 89.4% households, total income is not enough to buy food and 70.1% do not have enough income to purchase healthy food. In addition, 68% of the population lacks health insurance.

As far as crime is concerned, ECOVI records that 94% of the population considers that violent crime is on the increase: 9 out of every 10 Venezuelans think the country is now more unsafe than a year ago, and one out of 5 reports having experienced crime in the last 12 months.

On average, 43 Venezuelans below the age of 29 die a violent death every day.

And then, there is hyperinflation. On September 7, 2017, Congressman Rafael Guzman, a member of the opposition-led Finance Commission, broke the news: “Unfortunately, we have to announce today that the inflation rate is the highest in our history”.

Venezuela’s inflation in August stood at 33.7%. On March 12, 2018, Guzman announced that inflation in February had increased to 80%. 

According to polls, it should be remembered, 70% of Venezuelans want change. 

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