Venezuela: Early elections unlikely to offer a way out of crisis

  • President Nicolás Maduro yesterday called on the opposition to accept his proposal for early parliamentary elections.
  • While on the surface, it sounds like a concession by Maduro, it is not clear what this offer is meant to achieve.
  • It is also not clear what the opposition’s response to the offer is, but it seems likely they will reject it.
Venezuela: Early elections unlikely to offer a way out of crisis

President Nicolás Maduro yesterday called on the opposition to accept his proposal for early parliamentary elections, a challenge to both sides to demonstrate their level of popular support, as he seeks a way out of the country’s worsening political crisis. No date was specified (elections for the National Assembly are due by end-2020). 

While on the surface, it sounds like a concession by Maduro, it is not clear what this offer is meant to achieve. As we write, it is also not clear what the opposition’s response to the offer is, but it seems likely they will reject it.

Assuming elections are held: 

If such elections are free and fair, Maduro’s party (PSUV) is surely unlikely to win a majority – so it doesn’t help them – while an opposition victory may not give them any more power than they already have. The opposition, led by the self-declared interim President Juan Guaido, control the National Assembly anyway. So the opposition has little incentive to play along with Maduro’s antics. However, the opposition equally risks being criticised by Maduro for being uncooperative and undemocratic if they decline the offer, although such claims would be baseless and we would expect Guaido’s international backers to see through such a ploy. And if the opposition rejects Maduro’s call for early elections, it is not clear what will happen next. Would Maduro still seek to go ahead with early elections?

If the elections are not free and fair, which seems likely, the result would be meaningless anyway. But winning a majority for the PSUV, even under flawed conditions, would embolden Maduro and even provide a useful distraction to his supporters. Moreover, victory may give Maduro the pretext he feels he needs to remove Guaido. Of course the result would not be recognised internationally and Maduro and his supporters would likely attract even harsher sanctions. Still, holding early elections, win or lose, might be seen by the regime as easing the pressure and buying a bit more time. Maduro might think that conceding to new parliamentary elections will get Guaido’s international supporters off his back. But that would be naive in our view unless there was a clear and demonstrated commitment by Maduro to hold free and fair elections with international observers and to abide by the result. Very unlikely.

Besides, holding early National Assembly elections does not help the opposition’s cause, whose aim is to remove Maduro. It is not clear if and how early National Assembly elections would help their objective. 

The opposition already dominate the National Assembly, but the legislative body has been rendered largely ineffective by the Maduro-controlled Supreme Court. New elections may not give the opposition any more influence over Maduro’s levers of power (the military, the Supreme Court and PDVSA’s domestic operations), and of course, even if the opposition win an unlikely free and fair vote (or even increase their majority), President Maduro would remain in place. 

However, what the call for early elections might signal is that the regime is on its knees. Sanctions are biting, oil revenues are declining, and despite help from his friends (Russia, China, Cuba and Turkey), it is not clear how long Maduro can survive, as the financial resources he needs to buy support and prop up the regime dwindle, and the humanitarian crisis takes its toll.

Short of outright conflict, or external military intervention, it seems unlikely Maduro will simply stand down on his own, without getting cast iron guarantees as to his immunity from potential prosecution. Hence, the two most likely scenarios seem to be either a bloodless coup (the military could still turn on Maduro and install Guaido as the new legitimate interim leader until fresh elections can be held), and/or a negotiated exit (Maduro and his key supporters could seek to cut a deal, with amnesties, to leave the country), although the “when” and “how” is far from clear, and the risks that any transition is not smooth appear high.


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