Venezuelans went to the polls yesterday, the 15th of October, to elect governors of all 23 Venezuelan states, ten months after the elections were originally scheduled for last December. The elections were postponed by the National Electoral Council, which is friendly to the current government, led by President Nicolás Maduro, heir to Hugo Chavez’s socialist government.
Ultimately, Maduro’s party won 17 of the governor seats, while the opposition only won five.
Chavez, who came to power as a populist socialist leader, made a number of unilateral decisions that had a devastating effect on Venezuela’s economy. Maduro, who served under Chavez, has had a lock on power since the year 2000, despite sometimes violent protests against the government.
Maduro has responded harshly to mounting criticism and protests. When the opposition gained control of the National Congress in 2015, the Venezuelan Supreme Court, which is controlled by the sitting government, cut its powers with a number of heavily contested decisions, and called a constitutional assembly in July of that year that effectively replaced the opposition in the Congress with Maduro’s own supporters. Twelve Latin American governments released a statement in September stating they would not recognize Venezuela’s National Congress as a governing body, isolating the Venezuelan government politically and economically, but showing support for the opposition.
Twenty of the 23 governors up for election were supportive of the Maduro government.
2017 sees the fourth year of recession, rising poverty and food and water scarcities, as well as devastating inflation exceeding 1,100 percent annually. The Venezuelan GDP has shrunk 35% since 2014. Polls show that only 1 in 5 Venezuelans approve of Maduro’s job performance. Three in 5, or 60%, want him out of office.
Given the level of opposition to Maduro in this past year, the opposition was expected to sweep the elections, given the level of voter anger at Venezuela’s collapsed economy, accusations linking Maduro to a bribery scandal, and brutal crackdowns on opposition protests throughout the past year. Maduro violently suppressed street demonstrations using Venezuela’s armed forces against its own citizens. At least 125 people died in these protests.
Under these circumstances, observers could normally safely predict a win for the opposition, but the coalition of opposition parties (Mesa de la Unidad Democrática, or MUD) claims that the balloting was not fairly executed. MUD claims that the ballots included the names of candidates defeated in the primary, a strategy they say was intended to confuse voters and skew the vote. In addition, last-minute changes were made by the National Election Council to move 205 polling places from areas of opposition strongholds to areas that are seen as Maduro strongholds. The US State Department issued a statement expressing concern that these actions by the National Electoral Council could “call into question the fairness of the electoral process.”