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What it would take to defeat Maduro in Venezuela

For anyone tracking the slow-motion crackup of the economy, the rule of law and all the other vital signs of democratic life in Venezuela, here’s a riddle.

How is it that the vast majority of citizens in Latin America’s poorest rich nation, with some of the world’s largest reserves of oil and gas, are fed up with life under the Bolivarian Republic and yet still have not turned on the Palacio Miraflores, never mind thrown in with the opposition?

Two recent surveys, by Datanalisis and Hinterlaces, show that seven to eight of every 10 Venezuelans believe that President Nicolás Maduro is doing a lousy job, and more than 85 percent say the country is in bad shape. Maduro’s personal approval rating has fallen to just 22 percent.

That ought to be dynamite fishing for Maduro’s foes as they head to legislative elections later this year. Instead, Venezuela’s opposition is fractured and floundering.

A poll in January found that although some 40 percent of Venezuelans sympathized with the opposition message, only 19 percent backed the flagship opposition bloc, the United Democratic Roundtable. “No discourse, no message and no proposals,” is how pollster Oscar Schemel, president of Hinterlaces, described the anti-Chavista predicament in a televised interview.

Official election rigging hasn’t helped. In 2010, the opposition candidates won 52 percent of the vote, but thanks to gerrymandering ended up with just 41 percent of legislative seats. Then there’s the political guillotine. The latest victim was Caracas mayor Antonio Ledezma, a fiery critic of the Bolivarian regime, arrested by Maduro’s intelligence police on Feb. 19, on sedition charges.

Carlos Ocariz, director of Venezuela’s mayors’ association, told reporters on Feb. 22 that 33 of 77 opposition mayors in Venezuela currently faced legal action brought by the Chavista-friendly courts. Maduro has reportedly jailed more political opponents this year than Hugo Chávez did in the previous 14 years combined.

And yet the opposition’s bigger problem may be existential. Foes of the Bolivarian regime have eloquently decried human rights violations, media censorship and the blackout in civil rights that has struck a chord with groups such as Human Rights Watch, and drawn slaps from global heavyweights, such as former U.S. president Bill Clinton and former Spanish prime minister José María Aznar.

The message is less resonant among Venezuelans, eight in 10 of whom believe crime and economic disarray trump politics. For all its stirring jeremiads, the opposition has failed to offer a credible alternative. That may be because deep down they share some of Chavismo’s basic illusions.

“Venezuela is not a socialist state,” New York University historian Alejandro Velasco told me. “It’s a Petrostate, which means that the conversation is not over how to make a stronger democracy but all about distribution of rents and who controls the national wealth,” he said. “That makes dictatorship and democracy two sides of the same coin.”

Last year, Maduro first floated a proposal to raise Venezuela’s pennies-per-tank gasoline prices. Instead of saying it’s about time he stopped wrecking the economy, anti-Chavistas howled about gouging workers’ wallets. “As long as we give away our oil to Cuba it’s unacceptable that Venezuelans pay more. Unacceptable,” tweeted opposition leader Maria Corina Machado.

Instead of swapping out Chavismo’s bloated and profligate social programs for more cost-effective ways to reach the neediest, Miranda state Governor Henrique Capriles called for writing the “misiones” into the Constitution, as if to beat the Bolivarians at their own game.

There’s hardly an economist in the Andes who'll defend Venezuela’s grossly overvalued currency, which distorts prices and stokes the black market. But when the government recently introduced a new rate of 170 bolivares to the dollar — essentially, a 69 percent devaluation — Capriles called it a conspiracy. “The only coup today was the one the government staged against the bolivar,” Capriles tweeted.

With the Maduro regime bleeding, never has the Bolivarian brand looked so vulnerable. If legislative elections go forward this year — the government has yet to set a date — Venezuela’s opposition could conceivably overcome the government’s formidable incumbent advantages and take a majority in parliament. Yet even so, the bigger problem is not winning, but what to do once in power.

Mac Margolis is a Bloomberg View contributor based in Rio de Janeiro.

© 2015, Bloomberg News