By Michael M. McCarthy
If political campaigns are about the future, then the medium through which leaders communicate a message of change is equally as important as the platform for change. Put another way, the medium is the message.
On Dec. 6, Venezuela is scheduled to hold legislative elections for all 167 seats in its unicameral National Assembly. Polling indicates intensifying discontent with the Maduro government and most observers project the opposition to win a simple or qualified majority. The new political climate — the product of a severe economic crisis that knocked government approval ratings from 50 percent to 20 percent in two years — has strengthened incentives for the opposition Mesa de Unidad Democrática coalition (Democratic Unity Table, MUD) to promote the power of the vote.
The MUD is largely ignoring the paradox of participating in an electoral system that it (along with most international experts) believes to have considerable weaknesses. The biggest concern is the uneven playing field, most notably the government’s tendency to use public resources (including state media, employees, and institutions) for its own electoral ends without penalty, the possibility of Maduro stacking the court system before the new Assembly is seated, and the disqualification of opposition candidates on questionable grounds. But these developments did not surprise the opposition.
Sticking to its game, the MUD is focusing on an achievable goal: leveraging the elections to generate irrefutable evidence it enjoys majority status. To this end, the opposition has crafted a deceptively simple message: the vote is a valid method for compelling the start of a political change. This message is a hard sell for at least two reasons. The executive branch is very strong in Venezuela, which has a state-run oil industry, and there is precedent of the government naming parallel authorities that operate as shadow governments of the executive in districts won by the opposition.
It’s therefore important to ask: What explains why the MUD is adopting a ‘medium is the message’ campaign strategy when its leaders only partially believe in the medium?
Maximizing Available Opportunities
Let’s step back a year — 2014 was a particularly difficult period for the opposition. Disagreements within the heart of the opposition over whether to promote rapid change through street demonstrations or incremental change through recruiting support from discontented chavistas created nasty internal divisions. Meanwhile, the economic crisis of runaway inflation and shortages in basic goods and services changed the landscape.
These developments introduced two new elements. First, the opposition is not aligned on a policy agenda for moving forward post-election day, even though there exist general areas of consensus regarding amnesty for political prisoners and liberalizing the statist economy. In other words, since attempting to develop a platform might have undermined unity when cohesion was more valuable than ever, the deeper issues of what change entails moved to the back-burner.
Secondly, the economic crisis reinforced the MUD’s hesitation to establish a broad based platform. This arguably limits their ability to project power—for example, the coalition has yet to outline a coherent narrative that symbolizes their struggle while the government’s chavista party is using nationalistic symbolism from the Chávez Presidency era (1999-2013) to reconstruct a narrative of working class courage. But, this may not be an election where narratives sway undecideds. The country’s economic crisis is of such great magnitude that messages about principals and policy are unlikely to break through.
With an eye to a future plebiscite vote to recall the president, it instead focuses on a procedural challenge: overcoming distrust in the electoral authorities (75 percent according to the Venebarometro poll) and mobilizing belief that voting for its candidates is a step toward changing economic realities.
Notwithstanding the remote possibility of a suspension or delay of the elections, the strategy might well work. Voting is practically ingrained in Venezuelan political culture. Historically, including during recent elections when government abuses of state power have become manifest, the Venezuelan public has turned out to vote in high numbers. In the most recent ballots, 2013’s Presidential and Municipal elections, turnout reached 80 percent and 63 percent, respectively. Polling indicates that turn out will be high — 66 percent participated in the last National Assembly elections in 2010 — despite a large segment of the population doubting the government’s democratic bona fides.
The voting system, a technological platform that makes use of biometric thumbprint voter identification to register votes digitally, works soundly, is verifiable, and generally receives high marks from national and international observers. Yet there are other reasons why the message of voting may resonate. Venezuelans may be interested in the vote as a peaceful means to turn the page from a conflictive period that entails crises in human rights and citizen security, episodic political violence, and a record number of Venezuelans migrating abroad.
The truth is that a promising scenario of fruitful dialogue is unlikely. A vote which awards the opposition a majority or super majority in the National Assembly (two highly plausible outcomes according to pollsters) may in fact raise tensions in the immediate wake of the vote. After the votes are cast, full respect for the results and negotiations over institutional power will be the key determinants of whether these elections created conditions for placing Venezuelan on a more peaceful path.
The Difference a Decade Makes
A decade ago, a previous version of the Venezuelan political opposition was tormented by the dilemma of whether to participate in legislative elections it considered unfair. Days before the 2005 National Assembly elections the opposition opted to abstain, gifting the National Assembly to then-President Chávez.
Today, conditions for electoral competition are worse while the political climate is more favorable for the opposition. The MUD has seen a petition for international electoral observation of the voting process blocked, its ability to disseminate its message is weakened due to restrictions on freedom of expression, and the inclusiveness, transparency, and accountability of the electoral system are in doubt.
Nevertheless, this is a golden opportunity for the opposition to demonstrate its popularity, and it seems the MUD has come to terms with the paradox of participating in flawed elections. As a result, its central goal is to try and banish memory of 2013 opposition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles’s cry of fraud and flip the script by championing the vote. Yet regardless of whether the election contributes directly to the rebuilding of democratic governance, both Venezuela and the opposition will have been well served by the strategy of using the medium of the vote to send a simple but potent message of change through the ballot.
Michael M. McCarthy is a research fellow at American University’s Center for Latin American and Latino Studies. He tweets @macmac79.
[Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]