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December 1, 2020

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VENEZUELA: What to expect from 6D legislative elections

BY Nicholas Watson

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Elections for the National Assembly (AN) take place on 6 December. The new legislature will be installed on 5 January 2021 for a five-year term. The regime-controlled National Electoral Council (CNE) has increased the number of seats from 167 to 277. Most opposition parties are boycotting the vote, though some small, pliant opposition groups will participate, allowing the regime to simulate democratic competition. In parallel, the opposition is holding its own, unofficial, and mostly online vote from 5 December to 12 December to repudiate the Nicolas Maduro regime. Below we examine the implications and post-vote issues to watch.

Outcomes

The outcome is not in any doubt: the coalition led by the governing United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) will win a large majority. Gains by token, submissive opposition groupings are likely to be kept comfortably below one-third of seats.

Turnout is likely to be low at below 30%, though the CNE may claim higher levels of participation. Voting will mainly be driven by the promise of food handouts (or threats to withhold them). Both low turnout and transactional voting reflect the country’s profound economic crisis, with chronic shortages and the plummeting value of the bolivar generating widespread hardship.

Control of the AN brings a double pay-off for Chavismo: complete institutional hegemony and a significant weakening of Juan Guaido’s position. From 5 January, Guaido will no longer be AN president, which has been the basis for his claim on the presidency. It goes without saying that political hegemony is an end in itself rather than a means to address entrenched economic and social problems.

Opposition scenarios

Guaido’s consultation is mostly symbolic but it serves two purposes:

i) to extend his and the mainstream opposition’s political legitimacy even though they will soon be shut out of the AN.

ii) to demonstrate to the next US administration that he, Guaido, remains a credible interlocutor.

Guaido could find the first objective the most difficult to achieve. Opposition divisions remain intense and rival leadership claims are likely to intensify once Guaido is no longer AN president, something that a largely online consultation will hardly alter. That could change if the regime moves against Guaido. However, arresting Guaido would be counter-productive for the regime because it would risk boosting international backing for the outgoing AN president; instead, the regime would probably prefer to harass and intimidate Guaido into exile or push him into domestic irrelevance. In the meantime, the US is unlikely to withdraw its recognition of Guaido unless there is an opposition-wide agreement on an alternative leader.

How Maduro approaches a Biden administration

Institutional hegemony not only shores up Chavismo’s domestic position, and – Maduro hopes – snuffs out the Guaido challenge, but it also provides a stronger position from which to face the incoming Joe Biden administration. This is not to suggest any major shift in US policy is likely to be on the horizon. However, Maduro wants to be prepared for any calibrations that might come after 20 January. This explains last week’s conviction of the so-called “Citgo 6”, six US oil executives accused of corruption, the timing of which strongly suggests that Maduro sees them as bargaining chips in any future engagement with the Biden administration.

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