Venezuelans are set to vote in elections like no other in the country’s recent history when they go to the polls to elect a new National Assembly (AN) on December 6.
Ever since Hugo Chavez’s victory in the 1998 presidential election, electoral contests in the South American country have been highly polarised between the pro-Chavez, pro-poor Bolivarian Revolution and the predominantly traditional right-wing and pro-imperialist parties.
However, this time, both sides are going into the elections divided. Polls are indicating that a growing majority of Venezuelans do not feel represented by any political force, even if most still look favourably upon Chavez’s time in office, which saw a rapid reduction in poverty and expansion of grassroots democracy.
On the opposition side, moderate sectors have opted to participate in elections that more radical opponents have decried as “illegitimate”.
Perhaps more significantly, dissident pro-revolution parties have - for the first time - organised a nationwide challenge to the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), which was launched by Chavez and is now headed by President Nicolas Maduro.
These splits reflect an ongoing reconfiguration of Venezuela’s political landscape taking place against a backdrop of deep economic crisis, brutal international sanctions, rising social protest and the inability of any political force to consolidate an active majority around a viable path out of the country’s crisis.
Participate or abstain?
For the past two decades, the opposition has oscillated between electoral participation and abstention.
Having largely participated in elections in the early years of the Chavez government, the opposition first opted for abstention in 2005, as a means to delegitimise the country’s electoral system. The move failed and pro-Chavez forces gained complete control of the AN.
Learning from that defeat, it shifted back to participation, leading to the opposition’s first electoral victory over Chavez in the 2007 constitutional reform referendum. In 2015 it won control of the AN.
Speaking to Green Left, revolutionary activist and former Maduro minister Reinaldo Iturriza explained that the latter victory marked an important turning point for the opposition. Feeling “arrogant” and convinced that “taking power was just around the corner”, the opposition switched to “a scorched earth policy”.
“At the start of 2016, and with control of the AN in their hands, they ‘promised’ the country they would do everything necessary to topple the government”. They combined violent protests, economic warfare, attempted assassinations, calls for a military coup, paramilitary incursions and support for economic sanctions and foreign intervention to achieve this aim.
Control of the AN, which it has sought to portray as the “last remaining democratic institution in the country”, has been key for the opposition during this time, using it as a platform, domestically and abroad, from which to directly challenge Maduro’s legitimacy.
After Maduro’s 2018 re-election, the AN went as far as declaring the result illegitimate and proclaimed the previously little known deputy, and newly elected AN president and opposition hardliner Juan Guaido as “interim president” of the country.
Internationally, this strategy has been relatively successful, with the United States, Australia and a number of European and Latin American countries refusing to recognise Maduro’s government.
But, within Venezuela, it has caused much consternation within the opposition, given it has failed to remove Maduro and has led to a steady decline in its support base and presence in the various levels of government.
Despite this, the radical opposition are again calling for a boycott, stating that the only “legitimate” AN is one they control, regardless of the December 6 vote.
This move has received pushback from moderates in the opposition who have decided to openly break with the ultra-right’s strategy of violence and support for international sanctions.
Representing perhaps the most important split in the opposition since 1998, a number of moderate opposition parties have, after an extended period of dialogue with the government, opted to stand candidates.
The strategy of this moderate wing, however, is not simply to seek concessions from the government or maintain its AN presence, which is highly likely, given the number of seats has been expanded from 167 to 277, thereby raising the possibility for smaller parties to get elected.
It also wants to win a majority of opposition and undecided voters to an electoral strategy for defeating Maduro.
Indications are that opposition supporters will largely abstain on December 6. But, regardless of the result, if moderate opposition forces make gains, the radical opposition is likely to see its strategy of backing Guaido as “legitimate president” further undermined once the new AN is convened.
Revolutionary Popular Alternative
The split in the opposition has, in part, also contributed to the emergence of a left opposition to the PSUV in the elections.
With the likelihood of an opposition victory greatly weakened by its division, and with divergences within the revolution growing, some of the PSUV’s largest allies, such as the Communist Party of Venezuela (PCV) and Homeland for All (PPT), along with dozens of political forces, community organisations, social movements and trade union groupings have formed the Revolutionary Popular Alternative to stand candidates.
United Left (IU) general coordinator and APR candidate Felix Velasquez explained to GL that “there is a high level of discontent among the Chavista grassroots, as many see themselves as being under attack, rather than listened to, by the government”.
There has been a rise in protests in traditionally Chavista areas in recent months. Velasquez defined them as “largely peaceful protests by popular, organised sectors, including, some entire small communities, which, faced with the crisis affecting basic services, have decided to protest.”
Under similar circumstances, Velasquez said, Chávez “always asked the people to present proposals for overcoming such problems and was willing to correct mistakes and learn together with the people”.
In contrast, the Maduro government has adopted an “aristocratic vision of doing politics, where the government thinks they are the owners of the truth, that they are a government of the best, for the rest.
“This vision of politics has led them to ignore peoples’ needs and demands.”
Velasquez also pointed to the PSUV’s sectarianism as an important factor in the decision to form the APR.
“Its vision of politics has also led them to discredit the views and opinions of other political movements, including parties with a long trajectory in Venezuelan politics, such as the PCV, or historic left activist, such as [PPT leader] Rafael Uzcátegui, who have struggled for this revolution their entire lives, who have risk their lives, who were persecuted and spent time in jail for their socialist beliefs.”
“As a majority party, the PSUV has sought to impose its policies on the broader pro-revolution alliance, without any exchange or debate among allies. This mistreatment of allies has led to a rupture within the revolutionary forces.
“Those responsible for the rupture are the ones in power who have mistreated organisations that are supposedly its allies, while seeking dialogue with the right, the same right that attacked and tried to overthrow Chavez.
“We have seen the PSUV replace its allies with candidates who have had nothing to do with this revolutionary process, who do not agree with the revolutionary aims of socialism, who yesterday opposed Chavez but today call themselves ‘revolutionaries’; who yesterday persecuted revolutionaries and today are in the government.”
Like many of those supporting the APR, Velasquez is very critical of the government’s current orientation which, he believes, is no longer socialism but, rather, to foster the rise of a new wealthy class. “The government has allied itself with the right with the aim of benefiting wealthy economic sectors.”
Velasquez cites as a example of this the recently approved anti-blockade law, which received harsh criticism from some pro-revolution sectors.
The government argues that the new law is necessary to circumvent the devastating regime of international sanctions and encourage foreign investment in the country.
But Velasquez says the new law will, among other things, give the government greater powers to privatise companies, remove AN oversight of part of the national budget and punish those who speak out against any potential corruption in secret deals signed between the state and private companies.
"The anti-blockade law represents the moment in which the Maduro government has finally removed its socialist mask," he said.
“Differences have been growing, but have now reached a tipping point where they can no longer be sustained. All of this has led to the decision to form the APR.”
“We have decided to set up an alternative to the government bureaucracy, which has embarked on a neoliberal shift, and the right-wing opposition, who applaud the government because they agree with a number of its most recent measures.
“We feel we have no other option but to respond by saying: ‘We are here, with proposals to defend the rights of the workers and public services; to rescue the AN, which has been dismantled by the opposition and government; and to rescue the legacy of Chavez, the achievements made under his government and the struggle for socialism."
“We hope to bypass the censorship imposed by the two-party system that the opposition and government have created and present a revolutionary perspective that is aligned with the working class.”
How well is the APR likely to do in the elections? Iturriza says it remains the case that “the majority of Chavistas who vote in the parliamentary election will continue to do so for the PSUV.”
He adds: "I believe that the existence of the APR could motivate many Chavista people who, for whatever reason, do not want to vote for the PSUV ticket, and much less for an opposition party, to participate in the elections.
"In this sense, it could contribute to reduce abstention, which is one of the principle objectives of the patriotic forces in the coming parliamentary elections.”
Velasquez agrees, but notes the PSUV has previously required its allies to win elections outright. “Maduro would not have won the 2013 presidential elections had it not been for the votes of the PSUV allies.”
There are also specific examples of left opposition candidates having done well, particularly in strong Chavista areas.
For example, the PCV ran candidates for governor in 2012 in four states where there was discontent with the local PSUV candidate. PCV candidates succeeded in winning 10% in Merida, 8% in Bolivar, 5% in Amazonas, and an impressive 24.5% in Portuguesa, where it pushed the opposition candidate into third place.
In the current context, the APR could do well in regions where high-profile candidates have strong links to local grassroots movements.
However, Iturriza cautioned against misreading what any potential APR vote might represent, or judging its success or failure simply on the basis of its first electoral outing.
“If the [APR] obtains fewer votes than they expected, this should in no way lead them to abandon this effort of political coordination.
“Should the contrary occur, and they obtain more votes than expected, this should not be read as express and unconditional support for the APR. A lot of that vote likely represents a rejection of the PSUV.”
While not involved in the project, Iturriza hopes the APR might at least contribute “to partially unlocking a public discussion over the real fundamental problems of the country”.
Putting aside any disagreement with the APR’s criticisms of the government, Iturriza says its presence alone could help reopen channels for political discussion and organisation.
“These channels have been gradually reducing in number, and this is a process that has to be reversed.”
“Many of us who are not part of this political initiative hold out hope it will not just be a temporary electoral alliance … but the prelude to a platform that brings together forces that have been operating in a dispersed manner that has greatly reduced their political effectiveness.”