Venezuela vote: Could anger over violence, shortages shift political tide?

For the first time in more than 10 years, every major poll indicates the opposition could come out ahead in the Dec. 6 legislative vote.

Martin Mejia/AP/File
Venezuelan residents and supporters of jailed opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez hold his image as they protest outside Venezuela's embassy in Lima, Peru, Sept. 12, 2015.

On a recent Sunday, volunteers were sitting under a red tarp in the capital's shopping district burning up the phones – cajoling people to abandon their weekend plans and come out to "vote."

That there was nothing to vote for – that this was simply a drill, five weeks before the Dec. 6 legislative election – was one more sign about how much the ruling party has riding on the ballot.

For the first time in more than a decade, all major polls show that the opposition is running far ahead in next month's legislative races.

Sixteen years of socialist rule, first by the late Hugo Chavez and now his successor Nicolas Maduro, have left the nation weary. 

Signs of discontent abound: Shortages of basic goods – from diapers to deodorant to beans and bottled water – have spawned huge, sometimes angry, lines at grocery stores; runaway inflation, estimated in the triple digits, has evaporated purchasing power; newspapers virtually drip blood from all the reports of violence; and corruption scandals proliferate.

On Wednesday, the country was rattled by news that two of President Maduro's nephews (including his godson) were detained in Haiti on charges that they were trying to smuggle 800 kilos of cocaine into the United States.

"What we're hearing from people is rage, disgust, discomfort," says Ruben Chirino Madrid, a pollster with the firm Meganalisis, which gives the opposition an 11-point lead in the upcoming election. "In my 36 years of doing this, I've never seen this level of voter discontent."

What next?

Maduro, who took office in 2013, seems alternately combative and resigned to an eventual outcome.

At times, he has told the faithful that the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) must win "at all costs." Other times, he has said he will respect the "sacred voice of the people."

The whipsaw statements only seem to be fueling anxiety on the streets.

Manuel Rios, 60, a retired military officer, says he was alarmed by Maduro's recent threat to govern through a "civic-military union" if the opposition wins Congress.

"Where's that written in the constitution?" Mr. Rios asks. "He might as just well just stage a coup and declare himself a dictator once and for all."

Rios says he is convinced the administration has lost its bedrock, Venezuela's poorest, because of constant shortages and massive lines. In a country that boasts of having the world's largest oil reserves, Rios says he has been bathing with blue-tinctured medical soap because he can't find a regular bar.

"People have to wait 10 hours in line just to buy food, so you have to decide between feeding yourself or keeping your job," he says. "It's humiliating."

But Venezuela's 21st Century Socialism still has adherents. And many buy the administration's claims that it's under attack. In their telling, the opposition, along with powerful international allies, are hoarding goods, sabotaging the electrical grid, and promoting violence to push the nation into chaos.

Luisa Crespo, who had approached the mock voting center, says she fears an opposition-led Congress might eliminate the housing, food, and medical subsidies that have been hallmarks of the ruling party.

"They want to control the government again because this is the golden goose, a wealthy country, full of petroleum and minerals," she says. "They're not going to win Congress, but if they did, the people would rise up against them."

'Not enough just to win'

Beyond the faithful, more than a decade of rule has allowed the administration to amass a series of electoral advantages both blatant and subtle.

Perhaps the clearest example is the redistricting that has taken place in recent years.

Luis Vicente Leon, whose Datanalisis polls are closely watched, says that even if the opposition were heading into the campaign with a 20- or 30-point advantage, it wouldn't necessarily translate into more deputies.

The electoral map is set up to dilute opposition ballots. So while a candidate in a pro-government district might win a spot with 10,000 votes, a rival in an opposition stronghold might need 350,000 votes to win the seat.

"It's not enough just to win," Mr. Leon says. "You have to double the votes that your adversary might get."

As a result "the opposition might be a clear majority but may control Congress by a narrow margin," he adds.

In addition, the National Electoral Council, which is firmly under the administration's control, has allowed maneuvers that would raise eyebrows in more robust democracies.

On the December ballot, the box for the coalition of opposition parties known as the Mesa de Unidad Democatica, or MUD, sits adjacent to that of MIN-Unidad, which has similar colors and typeface. And while MIN-Unidad's motto is "We're the opposition," the MUD accuses it of being a ruling-party red-herring designed to sap votes.

If the move was designed to provoke confusion, it seemed to be working during the mock election.

As Eliana Hernandez, 19, studies a sample ballot, she says that any party that has the word "unity" in it is the opposition. "They're all pretty much the same," she says.

The government also seems to embrace subliminal psychology. Hundreds of new polling stations have been created for the legislative race and many have been christened with highly partisan names.

As a result, on Dec. 6, voters will be lining up at polling stations called the "Pure Socialist Blood of Chavez," the "Eternal Commander Chavez" and "With Chavez and Maduro."

That the electoral body would allow the names is just another sign of how corrupt the system is, says Henry Ramos Allup, the president of the opposition Accion Democratica party.

"This is a profanity," he says. "This is like vomiting on Venezuela itself."

The practice vote

The Organization of American States last week said "transparency and electoral justice" were not guaranteed during the vote. The body cited the jailing of opposition candidates, biased media coverage, and other obstacles. Venezuela denied the OAS the right to observe the elections, but has said it will allow representatives from the Union of South American Nations to "accompany" the vote.

Migdalia Margarita Aguilar, one of the poll workers during last week's exercise, says the opposition knows it's going to lose and is preparing the groundwork to declare fraud.

Instead, they should be winning over voters with concrete proposals and getting organized, she says.

Each of Ms. Aguilar's lieutenants was responsible for bringing 10 people to the mock poll and those 10 each had to bring an additional 10 – an electoral pyramid scheme she said would ensure victory.

The administration said more than 1 million people "voted" during the exercise and they're hoping to duplicate those numbers when the scheme is repeated Nov. 22.

"We'll have a large margin of victory because we're well organized and have the party machinery,"' she predicts. "This election isn't even going to be close."

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