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When Opposition Boycotts Don't Work: A Venezuelan Story

By Juan Javier Negri

[This article constitutes the first in a symposium on opposition strategies in Venezuela. Check back in the coming days for more work.]

On December 6th, parliamentary elections to select the 277 seats of the National Assembly took place in Venezuela. The “Democratic Unity Roundtable”, a coalition formed in 2008 that unifies the main opposition parties to Chavismo and President Nicolás Maduro, decided to boycott the election. The parties pointed to irregularities and the likelihood of fraudulent practices as the reasons for the boycott. Prior to the election, the government had appointed new members to the National Electoral Council and intervened in several opposition parties by dismissing their leaders and appointing regime-friendly ones. The election, in which the government regained the majority in the Assembly, was indeed severely criticized by the international community as lacking free conditions.

Many wonder if the opposition’s strategy was the correct one. Although Venezuela lacks the conditions that define a liberal democracy, it allowed the Roundtable to win the 2015 legislative election (some argue that this features define Venezuela as a competitive authoritarianism more than a full-fledged authoritarian regime). While it is true that the government cut back many powers of the Assembly immediately after losing in 2015, some argue that at least the election gave anti-chavismo an institutional channel to voice its opposition. Juan Guaidó´s attempt to replace Maduro in 2019 (which ultimately failed but was successful in garnering international attention to the Venezuelan situation and for the first time in many years put the regime at the defensive) was only possible due to the opposition´s success in 2015.

Opposition parties in non-democratic settings are confronted with a strategic dilemma. Declining to participate can be considered an abdication of their responsibilities and a retreat from the possibility of showcasing their opposition. Should the opposition not take advantage of the limited opportunities it has to obtain representation, even if the Assembly is afterwards severely curtailed? On the other hand, participation might legitimize an unfair election and therefore the regime. Boycotts, then, are useful as ways to expose the elections as charades. More importantly, however, in the long run electoral boycotts might reduce the regime´s legitimacy and force them to reform.

Academic research teach us that boycotts increase the likelihood of future reform but only if the non-democratic regime is somewhat weak. In these cases, electoral boycotts undermine the regime´s already reduced legitimacy and might prompt the need for reform. In more dramatic cases, it can produce mass demonstrations, social unrest and hence political crises and violence. For example, the Arab Spring demonstrations was predated in Egypt by an election in which some opposition parties decided not to participate. In 2000, the opposition boycott of the presidential election in Cote d´Ivoire resulted in violent demonstrations that forced President Robert Guéï to flee.

This is different in situations in which the regime holds a strong grip. In stronger non-democratic regimes, participating in elections might offer little room for opposition tactics. But boycotts offer none at all, as the regime’s control of sources of power make reform or transition unlikely. Therefore, boycotts make opposition parties worse off.

Scholars have also pointed out that there is an international component in play. Countries are sometimes forced to reform if they are under the sphere of influence of Western, pro-democratic ideas. In these cases, an electoral boycott reduces the international legitimacy of the regime and might force them to enact electoral, pro-democratic reform.

Regarding this last point, the Venezuelan regime has already shown that it does not treat international reputation as a serious concern. The international community rejected the 2018 presidential election and the United States has embargoed Venezuelan assets. This has had very little, if any, effect. Venezuela enjoys the support of some actors in the international arena (mainly Russia and China) and has been able to successfully ignore what its international critics have to say.

In the local arena, the regime enjoys the support of the military, who had been allies of the government in many of the darkest aspects of chavismo, namely, drug trafficking. In this respect, they have the most to lose from a democratic transition. Using regime change terminology, not only are “hardliners” stronger than “softliners” within the government, but the former also enjoys the upper hand vis-à-vis the opposition, as it controls the means of coercion. Studies of regime change have suggested that in these cases no democratic transition is possible. In this situation, electoral boycotts are unlikely to undermine the regime.

Given all of the above, it is possible that the boycott of the recent election was a bad idea. The opposition abdicated from the possibility of public challenge and hence was left without an important stage for spreading its views. Amid very little turnout, a government with a 10% popularity rate was able to win the last arena it did not control. And it is implausible that this might help produce a change. The government can safely ignore the boycott, and it is unlikely that this will produce a political crisis that might in turn topple Maduro.

What does this mean for ordinary Venezuelans? Not something very different from what they have been experiencing for a long time now. Hopefully the government might try to improve the dire economic crisis that results in shortages and a famine-like situation. On the other hand, a sizable segment of the population already voted by other means; around six million Venezuelans already escaped hunger and torture by leaving their country. The Venezuelan humanitarian crisis, with the largest ever recorded refugee displacement in the Americas, will unfortunately continue.

Juan Negri holds a PhD in Political Science from the University of Pittsburgh where he specialized in Latin American comparative institutions. He is Assistant Professor at the Department of Political Science at the Universidad Nacional de San Martín in Argentina.

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