Scarcity, mistrust, chaos ahead of Venezuelan vote

An opposition member wears a mask of jailed opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez during a rally in Caracas earlier this year, ahead of Dec. 6 elections.
An opposition member wears a mask of jailed opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez during a rally in Caracas earlier this year, ahead of Dec. 6 elections. AP

On a recent Sunday, volunteers were sitting under a red tarp in the capital’s shopping district burning up the phones — cajoling people to abandon their weekend plans and come out to “vote.”

That there was nothing to vote for — that this was simply a drill, five weeks before the Dec. 6 legislative election — was one more sign about how much the ruling party has riding on the ballot.

For the first time in more than a decade, all major polls show that the opposition is running far ahead in next month’s legislative races.

Sixteen years of socialist rule, first by the late Hugo Chávez and now his successor Nicolás Maduro, have left the nation weary.

Signs of discontent abound: Shortages of basic goods — from diapers to deodorant to beans and bottled water — have spawned huge, sometimes angry, lines at grocery stores; runaway inflation, estimated in the triple digits, has evaporated purchasing power; newspapers virtually drip blood from all the reports of violence; and corruption scandals proliferate.

Cocaine Scandal

On Wednesday, the country was rattled by news that two of Maduro’s nephews (including his godson) were detained in Haiti on charges that they were trying to smuggle cocaine into the United States.

“What we’re hearing from people is rage, disgust, discomfort,” said Ruben Chirino Madrid, a pollster with the firm Meganalisis, which gives the opposition a double-digit lead ahead of the election. “In my 36 years of doing this, I’ve never seen this level of voter discontent.”

Maduro, who took office in 2013, seems alternately combative and resigned to an eventual outcome. At times, he has told the faithful that the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) must win “at all costs.” Other times, he has said he will respect the “sacred voice of the people.”

The whipsaw statements only seem to be fueling anxiety on the streets.

Manuel Rios, 60, a retired military officer, said he was alarmed by Maduro’s recent threat to govern through a “civic-military union” if the opposition wins Congress.

“Where’s that written in the constitution?” Rios asked. “He might as just well just stage a coup and declare himself a dictator once and for all.”

Rios said he is convinced the administration has lost its bedrock, Venezuela’s poorest, because of constant shortages and massive lines. In a country that boasts of having the world’s largest oil reserves, Rios said he has been bathing with blue-tinctured medical soap because he can’t find a regular bar.

“People have to wait 10 hours in line just to buy food, so you have to decide between feeding yourself or keeping your job,” he said. “It’s humiliating.”

People have to wait 10 hours in line just to buy food, so you have to decide between feeding yourself or keeping your job ... It’s humiliating.

Manuel Rios, retired military officer

But Venezuela’s 21st Century Socialism still has adherents. And many buy the administration’s claims that it’s under attack. In their telling, the opposition, along with powerful international allies, are hoarding goods, sabotaging the electrical grid and promoting violence to push the nation into chaos.

Luisa Crespo, who had approached the mock voting center, said she fears an opposition-led National Assembly might eliminate the housing, food and medical subsidies that have been hallmarks of the ruling party.

Lingering mistrust

“They want to control the government again because this is the golden goose, a wealthy country, full of petroleum and minerals,” she said. “They’re not going to win Congress, but if they did, the people would rise up against them.”

Beyond the faithful, more than a decade of rule has allowed the administration to amass a series of electoral advantages both blatant and subtle.

Perhaps the clearest example is the redistricting that has taken place in recent years.

Luis Vicente León, whose Datanálisis polls are closely watched, said that even if the opposition were heading into the campaign with a 20- or 30-point advantage, it wouldn’t necessarily translate into more deputies.

The electoral map is set up to dilute opposition ballots. So while a candidate in a pro-government district might win a spot with 10,000 votes, a rival in an opposition stronghold might need 350,000 votes to win the seat.

“It’s not enough just to win,” León said. “You have to double the votes that your adversary might get.”

As a result “the opposition might be a clear majority but may control Congress by a narrow margin,” he added.

In addition, the National Electoral Council, which is firmly under the administration’s control, has allowed maneuvers that would raise eyebrows in more robust democracies.

On the December ballot, the box for the coalition of opposition parties known as the Mesa de Unidad Democática, or MUD, sits adjacent to that of MIN-Unidad, which has similar colors and typeface. And while MIN-Unidad’s motto is “We’re the opposition,” the MUD accuses it of being a ruling-party red-herring designed to sap votes.

Ballot confusion?

If the move was designed to provoke confusion, it seemed to be working during the mock election.

As Eliana Hernández, 19, studied a sample ballot, she said that any party that has the word “unity” in it is the opposition. “They’re all pretty much the same,” she said.

The government also seems to embrace subliminal psychology. Hundreds of new polling stations have been created for the legislative race and many have been christened with highly partisan names.

As a result, on Dec. 6, voters will be lining up at polling stations called the “Pure Socialist Blood of Chávez,” the “Eternal Commander Chávez” and “With Chávez and Maduro.”

That the electoral body would allow the names is just another sign of how corrupt the system is, said Henry Ramos Allup, the president of the opposition Acción Democrática party.

“This is a profanity,” he said. “This is like vomiting on Venezuela itself.”

The Organization of American States last week said “transparency and electoral justice” were not guaranteed during the vote. The body cited the jailing of opposition candidates, biased media coverage and other obstacles. Venezuela denied the OAS the right to observe the elections, but has said it will allow representatives from the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) to “accompany” the vote.

Migdalia Margarita Aguilar, one of the poll workers during Sunday’s exercise, said the opposition knows it’s going to lose and is preparing the groundwork to declare fraud.

Instead, they should be winning over voters with concrete proposals and getting organized, she said.

On Sunday, each of Aguilar’s lieutenants was responsible for bringing 10 people to the mock poll and those 10 each had to bring an additional 10 — an electoral pyramid scheme she said would ensure victory.

The administration said more than 1 million people “voted” during the exercise and they’re hoping to duplicate those numbers when the scheme is repeated Nov. 22.

“We’ll have a large margin of victory because we’re well organized and have the party machinery,”’ Aguilar predicted. “This election isn’t even going to be close.”