On 13 December, representatives of Venezuela’s democratic opposition collected the EU’s prestigious Sakharov prize for human rights. The opposition, represented by a fractious coalition of political parties known as the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD), is popular in the West, yet has been weak domestically since its inception. Recent municipal elections have strengthened the government-turned-dictatorship of Nicolas Maduro leading to renewed infighting within the MUD and high level resignations. Strikingly, this fragility coincides with dismal approval ratings for Maduro which have hovered consistently around 20% throughout 2017 amid Venezuela’s ongoing economic crisis. This is explicable largely by reference to the repressive tactics and electoral fraud employed by Maduro’s thuggish regime, but it is also a product of profound divisions within the MUD. Its debility allows Maduro to continue his assault on Venezuelan democracy unopposed at home and prolongs the misery of ordinary Venezuelans.
The MUD was formed in 2008 as a united anti-Chavista electoral coalition comprised of a wide spectrum of parties from left to right. It has experienced some significant electoral successes. In the 2013 presidential election, after Chavez’s death, Henrique Capriles, the MUD candidate, lost to Chavez’s appointed successor Maduro by a mere 1.5%, despite having lost to Chavez the previous year by an 11% margin. Its high point came in 2015 when it won a supermajority in the National Assembly, Venezuela’s legislature.
Since then however, the government has succeeded in frustrating MUD efforts to oppose its handling of the economic crisis and its steps to erode democracy. The government has arrested key opposition leaders such as the ex-mayor of Caracas, Antonio Ledezma, and has barred others such as Capriles from contesting elections. This has deprived the MUD of its ability to select a standard bearer. Furthermore, the government has made efforts to silence the National Assembly by subordinating it to the Constituent Assembly, which was created after a referendum in July 2017. The Constituent Assembly, packed with Chavista loyalists, is a legislative superbody with the objective of rewriting the constitution to extend the powers of the president. Finally, the regime has engaged in blatant and large-scale electoral fraud, most obviously in the July referendum. Smartmatic, the company which provides Venezuela’s electronic voting system, claimed the government had exaggerated the turnout figure which it claimed to be eight million, by at least one million.
The government’s efforts to crush the opposition have made it nearly impossible for the MUD to operate effectively, however, its efforts have also been inhibited by its disunity. One fundamental fault line issue is whether the MUD should engage with the regime through dialogue and participation in elections. Those in favour of this approach argue that engagement is the only means of keeping up pressure on the regime and demonstrating its unpopularity. However, other members argue that elections should be boycotted to avoid legitimising the regime and resistance should take the form of street protest. The fact that neither approach has been fruitful of late has frustrated the MUD and its voters leaving it directionless and them demoralised.
Conversely, the Maduro regime has stabilised its position in recent months. Elections have bolstered the government, and the government refused to make concessions in the major attempt at dialogue in 2016 mediated by the Vatican. On the other hand, with the support of the army and the national guard, the regime was able to withstand four months of relentless protest from April to July last year during which 124 people were killed, at least 46 of which were the result of police suppression. This conflict over strategy came to a head most seriously after the November 2017 gubernatorial elections in which the PSUV, the party of Maduro, unexpectedly won 18 out of 23 governorships. The MUD had announced beforehand that it would not take up any governorships it won because this would entail being sworn in before the Constituent Assembly. However, four of the five MUD governors who did win, all members of the Democratic Action party, broke ranks and took up their governorships prompting Capriles to declare he was leaving the MUD.
Even if the MUD does find a way to regroup as a united coalition, there may be few options left to successfully put pressure on the government. Opposition voters have been left exhausted by futile protest and it is unclear whether three of the four main parties within the MUD will be permitted to contest this year’s all important presidential election. Upon collecting the Sakharov prize, MUD representatives called for the international community to put pressure on the government. External pressure may now be the only means to reverse Venezuela’s slide into dictatorship through prompting the military to intervene. This would depend on whether they judge the economic benefits they gain from state cronyism to be under threat. For the moment however, Maduro, emboldened by recent PSUV electoral successes, opposition weakness and continuing military support, continues his quest to erode Venezuelan democracy.