Venezuela: Elections Amid COVID-19

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Venezuela is plagued by political, economic, and humanitarian crises while engulfed in the most formidable election campaign it has seen in recent history. Venezuelans will select 167 members of the National Assembly, the legislative body, on December 6. While polls suggest that the opposition party, the Democratic Unity (MUD), is leading by 20 to 30 points, the playing field is primarily seen as rigged. The Venezuelan political system places most power within the Presidency. Still, a MUD majority would give the opposition the capacity to contribute to policy changes in the economy, public services, and government spending. With Venezuelan Parliament elections approaching in December, it is vital to explore the current state of affairs, the opposition party, and future implications to the December Parliamentary elections.  

The coronavirus pandemic came at a tenuous time for Venezuela, and its repercussions on human security, the economy, and public health will be felt for years to come. Before the global pandemic, 9 million Venezuelans—32% of the population—faced daily food insecurity. Covid-19 cut trade and food productions, as well as strict curfews and fuel shortages, have prevented individuals from leaving their homes to buy food. The economy is projected to fall by 26% this year, and international remittances—the lifeline of the economy—is expected to decrease by 50%. Migrants in the country have lost their jobs, and financial institutions are reluctant to do business in the failing economy, leaving the already struggling economy destitute from the pandemic. The pandemic has negatively affected everyone, but Venezuelans are feeling the effects harshly. The inadequate state response to the coronavirus pandemic suggests that the opposition party may have the upper hand in the upcoming election.

Venezuela’s oil economy is in shambles, surprising due to the thriving economy it had just a short ten years ago under Chavez. Venezuela sits upon the largest oil reserves in the world, but bad leadership, mismanagement, and the current pandemic have led to chronic fuel shortages that stimulated social unrest. The economy under Maduro is a stark difference from when Chavez was in power, and oil prices were climbing. The government has, by all accounts, mismanaged and exacerbated the effects of the global decline in oil prices on Venezuela’s economy.

The state of Venezuela’s oil industry has become stagnant as the last oil rig halted its drilling in August. Meanwhile, the country has quietly been signing over its oil control to foreign companies. This decision made by Maduro breaks with one of the core doctrines of his PSUV party and decades of the nationalized oil industry. Still, it demonstrates the struggle to retain a grip over the economy. Venezuelan law holds that the state-run oil company must be the primary stakeholder in all oil projects. The company, Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA), is unraveling under American sanctions and corruption. The state oil industry has been an example to developing countries on gaining control over a natural resource, but the privatization sends a signal of the changing industry. 

The upcoming Parliamentary elections do not affect the Presidency, but MUD’s lead in the polls display the discontent towards Maduro’s government and management of the economy. President Maduro has seen his popularity decline since his narrow victory in 2013, and Venezuela is now in its seventh year of economic decay. Yet, although the opposition party is currently polling very well for the elections, several factors give reason to question the legitimacy of the election. The electoral law in the country mandates proportional representation, but the current law utilizes a hybrid system. Large cities, where the MUD is polling strong, need more votes than rural towns. This dilutes the opposition party’s favorability, and the electoral authority has altered boundaries to favor the government party. The government also controls the central electoral institutions—the electoral power, the Supreme Court, and others—that have barred some candidates from taking part in the election. Maduro has stated, on several occasions, his opposition to a MUD controlled parliament and that he would evade conventional institutions to implement a communal state. State control of television, radio, and the press continually intimidate opposition candidates and supporters. 

Since the fraudulent elections, Venezuela’s opposition parties have joined together to bring down Maduro through protests, strikes, encouraging international sanctions, and a coup. These efforts all failed, and the opposition parties now sacrifice the group’s unity over how to proceed in the politically-deadlocked elections. Juan Guaido, the opposition leader and Maduro’s challenger called for a boycott of the contested December elections, calling upon the security forces to back a unity pact of opposition forces. In addressing the high command, he said, “Stop hiding behind the dictator’s skirts, stop ignoring the reality in Venezuela.” Breaking the opposition party’s alliance, Henrique Capriles and Ivan Stalin Gonzalez came out against the boycotts and encouraged negotiating for fair elections. Mr. Maduro freed 50 political prisoners following negotiations he had with Mr. Capriles. Criticisms are being thrown around the opposition party. Some say boycotts disconnect the party leaders with the country’s problems, and others saying the boycott will delegitimize the elections. Infighting is detrimental to the opposition party’s only remaining weapon against the Maduro regime; it’s unity. 

There are many factors to be observed leading up to the Venezuelan Parliamentary elections in December. The current state of affairs under Maduro’s government is plagued by food insecurity and a decaying economy. The desperation of the economy is evident by the privatization of the oil industry under the PSUV and the stagnation of drilling in the once-wealthy oil nation. Discontent with the country’s disarray has given rise to the opposition party, MUD, with a lead in the polls. Most governmental powers are vested in the Presidency, and the Parliamentary election does not affect Maduro. Still, an opposition majority in the legislative branch would allow them to contribute to policies. Venezuela’s democracy is at stake, and while many live in extreme poverty and fight each day for their livelihoods, the right to vote is their last expression against the government.

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