Column: Under the guise of 'democracy,' Venezuela’s election is not over

Pro-government supporters demand that a polling station reopen, after its official closing, during congressional elections in Caracas, Venezuela, Sunday, Dec. 6, 2015. Some members of the opposition are angry after elections officials ordered polling centers to stay open for an extra hour, even if no one was standing in line to vote. Government opponents mobbed some voting stations demanding that the National Guard stick to the original schedule of closing at 6 p.m. (AP)

For the first time in 17 years, President Nicolas Maduro and the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) have been seriously challenged by an opposition party, the Democratic Unity coalition, which won at least 99 of 167 seats in the National Assembly, according to a New York Times report.

The election, held on Sunday, was considered to be one of the most democratic Venezuela has seen in years, but the over-arching – and almost Orwellian – presence of President Maduro serves as a fair warning that though the polls may be closed, Venezuela’s election is not yet over.

Before the election, Maduro was confident his party would succeed, despite the opposition’s clear lead in opinion polls. According to a piece by Moisés Naím of The Atlantic, Maduro reportedly commented that if the opposition were to win the majority, “We would not give up the [Bolivarian] revolution and… we would govern with the people in a civil-military union.” He also made various threats of violence, saying that “there [would] be a massacre” if the revolution failed, before he peacefully conceded defeat on Sunday.

Not all of these threats have been empty. Opposition party marches were often attacked by armed people’s militias before the election, and some leaders, such as Luis Manuel Diaz, were even murdered, according to the article from The Atlantic. Other opposition leaders were either imprisoned, prevented from running for office, or defamed by the government in an attempt by the PSUV to control as much of the election as possible. On the voters’ side of the ballot, government managers like Jose Miguel Montañez even threatened employees into voting “correctly,” requiring them to bring a picture of their ballot to prove they voted for the PSUV.

We’ve seen signs like this before – with the intimidation of voters in Argentina in 1937, and numerous accounts of terror and violence in various elections of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe and Omar al-Bashir in Sudan. Of course, the corruption is most obvious in countries that are clearly known to have authoritarian regimes, such as North Korea, where a definitive 100 percent of this year’s voters elected members of the ruling party, according to a CNN report. However, it is widely accepted that North Korean elections are anything but democratic; therefore, the more significant threat lies in dictatorships that operate under the guise of democratic elections.

The danger is even greater in Venezuela, where Maduro continues to campaign under the banner of Hugo Chavez’s Bolivarian Revolution. Even amid food shortages, plummeting oil prices, and an economic slump, many Venezuelan citizens will be attracted to any promise of the oil wealth that Chavez brought the country, despite the incompetency of his successor. As long as Maduro maintains the image of Chavez, he possesses a significant amount of power over voters, and he can be assured that even with the new challenges he faces in the National Assembly, his own position is not yet threatened.

Yes, Venezuela has at last elected a majority opposition to the National Assembly, but President Maduro remains in power, where he can assert is control over both the government and the media, which has conspicuously been bought out by private investors who broadcast pro-PSUV propaganda, according to Naím’s article. Even with 99 seats in the National Assembly, the Democratic Unity coalition cannot prevent Maduro from limiting the power of the assembly itself, no more than it can stop him from bypassing any restrictions the assembly would place on him. Yet, because of Sunday’s “free” elections, Maduro can disguise himself as a proponent of democracy and fear of undemocratic and unconstitutional measures will lessen.

In his article, Moisés Naím wrote that “democracy is not defined by what happens on Election Day, but rather by how the government behaves in between elections.” The votes have been counted, but that does not mean that the danger of a tyrannical government in Venezuela has passed. As long as Maduro is in power and continues to have a lingering presence on Election Day, the world should be wary of Venezuela’s future. For as history has shown us, some of the strongest dictatorships can thrive in the most deceptively “democratic” of environments.


Alex Oliveira is a contributor to the Daily Campus opinion section. She can be reached via email at alexandra.oliveira@uconn.edu.