These elections are taking place after a serious attempt at street fighting confrontation by anti-Chavista forces. For now, this electoral contest marks a truce allowing both sides to gauge their strength and set out the limits of future political outcomes.
This political moment contains various factors such as voter morale, the style and content of the political campaigns, organization of resources on the ground and the mobilization of the vote.
Poltical morale – voting intention variables
Analysts of all political tendencies agree that one key factor, perhaps the most decisive, will be the level of voter abstention. In an effort to motivate the anti-Chavista vote, one narrative being promoted has been to argue that Chavismo is politically exhausted and thus people opposed to the government merely need to turn out and vote in order to win the regional governorships, in spite of the results in the elections to the National Constituent Assembly
This triumphalist narrative is offered by opposition analysts like John Magdaleno, who asserts that “the opposition could win 18 of the 23 governorships in play, if only people will participate.” For his part, opposition analyst Luis Vicente León argues in his Twitter account that “the level of participation in the regional elections will determine whether the opposition triumph will be overwhelming or moderate. Abstention favors the government.”
But uncertainty over the true participation of anti-Chavista support is an enigma, even for the pollsters since the data about voting intentions available to date offer large room for uncertainties and discrepancies. The figures for voting intentions (regardless of voters’ political loyalties) is presented using varied criteria. The national Datanalisis Omnibus opinion poll, in August at least, showed 69 percent of those polled disposed to vote in these elections, but the poll highlighted that only 37.2 percent were very disposed to do so.
On the other hand, the Consultores 21, poll of last October 5th, reckoned that between 63 percent and 68 percent of people were prepared to vote, which amounts to between 11 and 12 million people. The Venevarómetro poll suggests that 55.7 percent of people eligible to vote will do so. All of which seems to suggest that abstentionist opposition discontent looks like being a serious challenge to the aspirations of the United Democratic Table (MUD) opposition. On that point, John Magdaleno adds that the level of abstention “will work against the opposition”. Or, in other words, abstention is not thought likely to seriously affect the Chavista vote.
Despite the playing around with data, Luis Vicente León doesn't venture to make national projections. He noted on Twitter, it isn’t possible to project which states the opposition may win because circumstances relating to abstention and transparency may generate distortions.” This implies that the big worry for the MUD activists lies in the voting morale of their supporters in a very unfavorable context.
This lack of confidence among MUD activists can be explained from various angles:
1. The months of violence undertaken by the MUD this year along with the 147 deaths it caused split opposition sentiment in two. One sentiment sees the MUD as a violent organization organizing roadblocks, disturbances and damage affecting the population. These are voters who don’t support violent outcomes. They distrust the MUD leadership. But paradoxically, the other sentiment is one of rejection of the MUD for participating in the elections and not continuing with the violent program aimed at “overthrowing the dictator”. Those with this sentiment argue “no vote under dictatorship” and that voting will “legitimize the regime”. People holding this second sentiment are especially hostile towards the MUD leadership and infect the opposition ranks with ill-feeling.
2. The constant campaigns of “no recognition of the regime” and the rejection of Venezuela’s institutions affected perceptions of the transparency of the National Electoral Council (CNE). So some segments of the anti-Chavista vote will abstain because they lack confidence in the electoral body.
3. The MUD’s triumphalist promises have translated into enormous frustration among other segments of opposition followers and are another factor discouraging their voters.
4. Emigration by opposition supporters is also something to take into account, although for now statistically undetermined given the lack of hard official data on Venezuelans who have emigrated overseas. One is talking about a very large number of people who historically have voted for the MUD and have left Venezuela out of economic discontent and demoralization at the absence of the opposition’s much vaunted “change”. This factor could cause surprises.
5. Economic discontent is the main factor in favor of the MUD leadership. But there is no cohesion with any electoral discourse offering credible electoral promises or programmatic political vision.
The electoral campaigns, deployment and the regional question
The anti-Chavista regional political campaigns have been preceded by serious electoral fragmentation. The MUD is not going into these elections united. They presented various candidates. Then, following their primary elections, charges of fraud and inter-party conflicts meant that the election campaigns were led by the winning parties without solid support from the MUD’s other component parties in their regional bodies. This lack of electoral cohesion is key.
For Chavismo the situation is the exact opposite, except in the state of Apure where the Communist Party supports Vitico Castillo which is a choice threatening dangerous electoral fragmentation.
Opposition candidates are also running from outside the MUD, which could also weaken support for that political organization’s candidates.
The spirit, discourse and different shades of political morale in the election campaigns are other things that differentiate the campaigns of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) and the MUD. The PSUV campaigns are marked by cohesion over issues and the expectation of being able to consolidate responsible regional governments in tune with popular demands. While the right wing campaigns are marked by messages emphasizing economic discontent and “dictatorship."
Fragmentation in the ballot paper
The electoral fragmentation of the MUD and the inscription in many states of different candidates for each of the organization’s parties on each ballot paper has an important sequel which could cost the opposition votes. The National Electoral Council ruled that it was impossible to change the software in the voting machines as requested by the MUD just a few days before the elections. That means candidates cannot be substituted, so votes cast for a party rather than for a specific candidate will not count. For example, in the State of Merida where the opposition Voluntad Popular party has strong support, anyone wanting to vote for that party will not vote for the MUD candidate Ramon Guevara but for Lawrence Castro, the Voluntad Popular party candidate who appears on the ballot, but who is no longer a candidate.
This situation is the result of the MUD’s political improvisation which made it impossible from the start for them to field agreed united candidates. This could lead to a small loss of votes which could be decisive in some states.
Mobilizing the vote
"Elections are won on election day.” This slogan is a kind of syllogism of Diosdado Cabello’s from the National Constituent Assembly elections arguing that mobilizing the vote on election day is a factor that can determine election results in a dramatic way. In that regard, the PSUV has a historic advantage with voter mobilization machinery ready and oiled since the national Constituent Assembly elections and which has been modified to improve its effectiveness and readiness.
The MUD suffers from having to rely for its election turn out almost exclusively on the personal initiative of its voters. In these elections the weakness of the MUD’s component parties can be seen on the ground where candidates of parties that won the primaries are being left to go it alone. This is another factor indicating the MUD’s lack of electoral cohesion.
Are predictions feasible for these elections?
If we go by the rival parties’ calculations any prediction will be unreliable. Likewise with the “truths” dictated by polling company campaigns like that of Datanalisis which ahead of the elections to the National Constituent Assembly put rejection of the vote on July 30th at 85% when in fact more than 41% of eligible voters turned out. So those reference points are unreliable too.
The most useful procedure in these cases is to weigh up electoral precedents and estimate political sentiment. The variables that are going to define the election result go against anti-Chavismo in various ways such that the likely electoral outcome suggests that the opposition will only win governorships in states where opposition support is not only much greater than support for Chavismo and is also able to stay solid.
In other words, the MUD will only win governorships where its support is so great that it can overcome the factors working against it. Those factors may have small effects individually but in sum they are decisive, like abstention by demoralized supporters, emigration by opposition voters, parallel candidates, lack of cohesion between the different opposition parties, votes for candidates no longer running for election and poor mobilization of voters on election day.
On the other hand, to estimate how well Chavismo will do in the elections it is necessary to look at the states the party has won historically, namely the states with high participation in the election to the National Constituent Assembly and the states where the voting difference between the two sides is minimal (even if they the MUD won them in the past). These variables in the electoral map look like this:
Taking into account these factors, Chavismo stands very good chances of winning the states of Apure, Guárico, Portuguesa, Barinas, Trujillo, Nueva Esparta, Sucre, Monagas, Delta Amacuro, Yaracuy, Cojedes, Falcón, Amazonas and Vargas.
In states where the voting differences are minimal and if the factors working against the MUD play a role, Chavismo could win the states of Carabobo, Anzoátegui, Zulia, Aragua y Bolívar.
Where the elections are closely fought, the remaining states of Miranda, Lara, Táchira and Mérida are the ones where at the moment the opposition parties stand the best chance of winning.
In any case, elections in Venezuela, like political events of significance throughout the country’s life, have the characteristic of overturning all projections and political predictions. We will see on the night of October 15th.