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Venezuela elections: campaign amid chaos, or chaos as campaign?

The government sent a clear message last month about the nature of the congressional election when it declared five opposition candidates ineligible to run.

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    People raise their hands during the final campaign rally of Venezuela's United Socialist Party (PSUV) in Caracas, June 26, 2015.
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As Venezuela gears up for a key congressional election, sometimes it's hard to know if the campaign is taking place amid chaos – or if chaos is part of the campaign strategy.

As polls indicate the embattled opposition could see its strongest showing in decades in the Dec. 6 race, the government has taken measures that have ranged from ruthlessly effective to ham-fisted.

Although the campaign hasn't officially started yet, the government sent a clear signal last month about the nature of the race when it declared five opposition candidates weren't eligible to run.

The move brought howls of protests but also sidelined some of the biggest names in the opposition ranks, including María Corina Machado, who was the nation's largest vote-getter during the 2010 congressional race. 

On Tuesday, the US Department of State asked Venezuela to reconsider the ban and allow international observation of the race – something the administration has yet to agree to.

"We encourage the appropriate institutions to ensure that Venezuelans can exercise their right to participate in the upcoming elections, as candidates and voters, in keeping with Venezuela's democratic traditions and in accordance with the Inter-American Democratic Charter," the agency said.

Last week, the Nicolás Maduro administration took its fight to the private sector, ordering troops to occupy a food-distribution warehouse and giving its owners, which include the country's largest food producers, 60 days to clear the premises and make way for a public-housing project. In a country where food shortages are rampant – and perhaps the greatest threat to the administration – the move seemed illogical at best. But for some the message is clear: the private sector needs to fall in line during the campaign season or face reprisals.

The president of the MUD opposition coalition, Jesús Torrealba, said the warehouse shuttering puts 3,000 jobs at risk and further threatens access to food.

"What's Nicolás Maduro trying to achieve with this perfect storm?" Mr. Torrealba asked this week. "Is he looking for social upheaval so he doesn't have to take on the electoral challenge?"

Even without government pot-stirring, Venezuela has plenty of troubles. Collapsing oil prices in a country where the lions' share of products are imported has led to widespread misery. Last week, looting at one grocery store in Bolivar state turned violent, leaving dozens injured and one dead.

The government, predictably, blames the fatality on an opposition destabilization plot to skew the elections, rather than its own economic policies.

Eduardo Piñate, who is running for reelection with the ruling PSUV party, said the high profile food riots are straight out of the opposition playbook.

"The opposition has a tradition of turning these electoral processes into a war – not just putting up posters and chanting slogans, but a true dirty war, an economic war, a media war inside and outside the country," he said. "And it's even worse this year when they think that their time has arrived. But I think they are profoundly mistaken."

The Venezuelan Observatory of Social Conflict said it registered at least 2,386 protests during the first half of 2015. Of those protests, 969 were over labor issues, 715 were over housing and 502 were over shortages of food, personal care items and medicine.

The rate of demonstrations – an average of 14 per day – has Venezuela "trapped in a spiral of social and political conflicts that grows over the months, and which could become more acute due to the forthcoming parliamentary elections," the observatory said in its report.

On cue, the opposition has called for a national demonstration Saturday to decry the food shortages.

Border Squabble

Not all the problems are domestic. In recent weeks, a long-dormant border dispute with Guyana has come back to life. The fight goes back to the 1800s; the recent flare-up comes after ExxonMobile announced in May a massive oil find (perhaps 400 million barrels) within disputed waters.

Venezuela has reason to protest, but its reaction – not only reasserting but expanding its claims over the Essequibo region and saying it would issue national identity cards in the area – have been seen as provocative.

"The problem is that the concessions given by Guyana to ExxonMobil and other companies include areas which are clearly Guyanese, areas that are in the disputed zone with Venezuela and also areas that are evidently in the Venezuelan Atlantic front," Sadio Garavini di Turno, Venezuela's former ambassador to Sweden, Guatemala, and Guyana told the Inter-American Dialogue. "The Venezuelan government, after forgetting the dispute for nearly 16 years, is now trying to use it for electoral reasons to distract public attention from the socioeconomic disaster it has created."

But the question remains: how will the chaos play out at the polls?

A survey of 1,200 potential voters released by Caracas-based Venebarometro last week shows an administration in trouble.

A full 84 percent said the country is heading in the wrong direction (the worst showing since at least 2013) as food shortages, crime, and the high cost of living sour the mood.

But the poll doesn't give the opposition the crushing victory one might expect. According to Venebarometro, 33 percent of those surveyed said they would vote for opposition candidates versus 21 percent who plan to vote for the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV).

Independent Candidates?

But there is also a large portion of voters caught in the middle. While 19 percent said they didn't know who they would vote for, an additional 28 percent said they would vote for "independent" candidates.

In highly polarized Venezuela, however, independent parties (not associated with the opposition MUD or the ruling PSUV) are few and far between.

In that sense, the demand for a third party savior "is simply aspirational," said Alfredo Croes, a political analyst who produces the Venebarometro poll.

"There's a frustration within the country and the opposition isn't seen as offering solutions – they're seen as simply pointing out the problems," he said. "We don't have someone who's seen as an independent leader in the country; there's a vacuum, but in politics vacuums are filled quickly."

Ruben Chirino is the president of Meganalisis polling firm, which accurately predicted that the opposition would win the popular vote during the 2010 National Assembly race but, due to electoral redistricting, would not capture the body.

Chirino is predicting a similar outcome this year. He said the administration is likely to make last minute district changes or take other actions that will guarantee its hold on congress.

"People think you win the National Assembly through votes," he said. "But you win it with deputies."

Even if the opposition wins control of the assembly, it's unlikely to reduce tensions, the New York-based Eurasia Group said in a letter to subscribers.

"Though the opposition will likely win a simple majority in the election, [the administration] will use its control of the rest of the state apparatus to minimize the importance of the results and strip the National Assembly of its power," the group predicted. "The government may also consider manipulating the results. Such dynamics will only exacerbate political tensions, which, coupled with worsening economic distortions, mean that the risk of a more acute social crisis remains significant in 2016 and beyond."

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