The Tragedy of the Venezuelan Opposition

In December 2015, Venezuela’s opposition coalition, the Democratic Unity Committee (known popularly as MUD), won a landslide victory, sweeping up two-thirds of the seats for the National Assembly, the country’s legislature. Since then, positive public opinion of President Nicolás Maduro, political heir to Hugo Chavéz, has rarely reached 30 percent. Poverty has increased, affecting more than 81 percent of the population today compared to 48 percent in 2014, according to a yearly survey of living conditions conducted by three leading Venezuelan universities. Malnutrition and starvation now afflict the most vulnerable, the government has defaulted on its international debts, and the country has entered a hyperinflationary spiral.

Under these conditions, you would expect the MUD to win the upcoming 2018 presidential elections easily as voters punish the incumbent government that has led Venezuela astray. Not so. Maduro’s party swept the country’s 2017 gubernatorial races, seizing 18 of 23 governorships, and is now favored to renew his term in office. How did it come to this? Why was Venezuela’s opposition unable to capitalize on the government’s massive unpopularity and its proven ability to win elections?

The tragedy of Venezuela’s opposition is that after struggling for years to forge a common strategy, it finally came together and learned how to win elections—only to have Maduro change the rules. The government has openly manipulated the electoral system and even committed outright fraud, as its own longtime provider of electronic voting systems, Smartmatic, confirmed in the wake of the 2017 Constituent Assembly elections. Now, the presidential ambitions of its leaders, differing views on the way forward, and adept government countermeasures have fractured the opposition once again. The result is that the MUD is able to have little impact as Venezuela collapses. 

WHEN VOTES NO LONGER MATTER

The coalition is fragile precisely because it is not much more than an election-winning machine. There is little underlying comity, ideological affinity, or shared policy consensus to hold the member parties together. It exists because Venezuela’s electoral rules create

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