At a raucous closing rally for this weekend’s critical legislative race, President Nicolás Maduro urged followers not to “drive a lance through the soul” of the country by giving the opposition an advantage for the first time in more than 15 years.
“You decide this Sunday if we move forward,” he told the massive crowd Thursday night, “or if we go off a cliff.”
Yet, by most accounts, the country is ready for the leap.
On Sunday, as Venezuela selects members of the 167-seat National Assembly, most surveys show the long-battered opposition entering the race with a double-digit advantage. Fueling the surge are a punishing economic crisis, rampant crime and worries that 17 years of unchecked chavismo have fueled cronyism and corruption.
Rafael Araujo, a 62-year-old artisan who was heading to a competing opposition rally in eastern Caracas, said it was time to give congress teeth.
“Right now, the administration is out of control,” he said. “It’s like someone taking money at the till and then giving themselves the change also. We need the National Assembly to do its job.”
What that job will consist of, however, depends on the magnitude of an eventual opposition win. If it captures a simple majority, the legislative body might be easy to co-opt and undermine, analysts said.
But if the opposition wins three-fifths of the deputies, or 101, as some polls suggest, it can call no-confidence votes against ministers and the vice president and deny the president his oft-used executive powers.
“Things could get a lot messier” with a large opposition win, said David Smilde, with the Washington Office on Latin America. “They could really wreak havoc on the executive branch.”
There are many reasons that the simmering discontent on the street might not translate into more congressional seats. The results don’t depend on national sentiment but the dynamics in each of the 114 voting districts. And those districts have been massaged to minimize the opposition’s punch.
Alfredo Croes, a political analyst, aggregated the regional results from six major polling firms and found the opposition could potentially capture 107 seats versus the ruling party’s 60 — well above the three-fifths thresh-hold. However, many analysts have predicted much tighter results.
Even though Maduro warns that he won’t let an opposition victory stand in the way of deepening the Bolivarian Revolution, Croes said the president would ignore the ballot at his own peril.
“More than 80 percent of people want some sort of change, including people who are chavistas — they want to change the model without getting rid of Maduro,” Croes said. “The government will have no choice but to accept the results.”
Working with a confrontational congress is status quo in most democracies, but Venezuela’s ruling party has had a firm grip on all branches of government ever since the late Hugo Chávez first came to power in 1999.
In that sense, the administration — and the country — could be entering unchartered waters, said Ruben Chirinos, a pollster with Meganalisis.
“We have no idea what’s going to happen on Dec. 7,” he said. “If the government doesn’t accept the results, then may God find us all at the confessional.”
Chirinos’ firm is predicting the opposition will win 96 seats, versus the ruling-party’s 71.
The vote comes at a poor time for the administration. Triple digit inflation and an economy that the IMF predicts will contract 10 percent this year (a global record), are weighing on the national mood. In addition, sporadic food shortages often spawn massive, angry lines.
That the problems are slapping a country that boasts the world’s largest crude reserves only deepens the gloom.
Maduro blames those problems on an “economic war” being waged by the opposition and the U.S. government.
On Thursday, he said he was determined to “radicalize the economic project” and make the nation, which imports about 70 percent of all good, self-sufficient.
“But first we need a victory that will teach the parasitic opposition a lesson,” he said.
In the past, legislative races in Venezuela have been relatively hum-drum affairs with weak turnout. But Chirinos said this race will likely see presidential-level voting as it has morphed into a referendum on Maduro’s tenure since he narrowly won office in 2013.
“People can’t find medicine, they can’t find food, they can’t find car batteries — there is economic chaos here that can’t be brushed away by ideology,” he said. “Socialism is failing and the people’s hunger has turned this into a plebiscite.”
Even so, not everyone’s ready to give up on the long-running socialist experiment.
Miguel Crespo, a 54-year-old public worker, said he was thankful that consecutive Chávez-Maduro administrations had provided free housing, education and healthcare. And he was fearful that an opposition-led parliament might try to take those benefits away.
“The legacy of Commander Chávez gives us many reasons to keep voting for this administration,” he said.
Maduro himself is also predicting a big win, despite what the polls say.
“We are going to give the North American Empire a big surprise with our perfect and splendid victory,” he said.
If that does happen, it will undoubtedly be contested. The opposition has been warning for months that the government has its thumb on the scale. And while the administration has asked the UNASUR bloc of nations to “accompany” the vote, its refusal to open the door for widely-recognized election observers, like the OAS, undermines its credibility.
“They have totally painted themselves into a corner,” said Smilde. “If they do better than expected no one will believe it… There is no one in Venezuela that has enough status and recognition to validate a result that is surprising.”
Luís Heredia, 29, at the Maduro rally Thursday night, feared a ruling-party loss would only bring trouble.
“The opposition’s only plan is to get rid of Maduro and end the revolution,” he said. “If they win this country is going to be ungovernable — but, anyway, that’s not going to happen.”