Opposition supporters take part in a march against the government of Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, October 18, 2014.
Jorge Silva / Reuters

Minerva Ramos isn’t taking any chances in the run-up to this Sunday’s National Assembly elections in Venezuela. A 45-year-old housewife in the central city of Maracay, Ramos has been loading up on crackers, cans of sardines, and other non-perishables for her family of five. She fears the worst.

“Who knows what’s going to happen on Sunday?” she says, worry etched on her face. “I think the opposition will win the election, but what will the government do? Will they accept the results? Will they take to the streets? Will they steal the election? If they do, will the opposition take to the streets? It’s better to build up a reserve, even though there isn’t that much to buy.”

Venezuelans line up to buy vegetables at a street market in Caracas, December 2, 2015.
Venezuelans line up to buy vegetables at a street market in Caracas, December 2, 2015.
Nacho Doce / Reuters
Polls suggest that the Democratic Unity (MUD, as it is known by its Spanish acronym) will win handily over President Nicolas Maduro’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV). Some opinion polls give MUD up to a 30-percentage-point lead, which would translate into a majority in the 167-seat National Assembly—a first since 1999, when the late President Hugo Chavez rewrote Venezuela’s constitution and created the unicameral body.

But Venezuelans like Ramos are hedging their bets. Even margins as big as MUD’s are no guarantee in the rough and tumble world of Venezuelan politics, where charges of fraud and ballot tampering are the norm rather than the exception and a dispute over a vote could quickly spiral into violence.

The National Electoral Council, which oversees elections and is theoretically autonomous, has repeatedly turned a blind eye to MUD protests about the government using state funds to finance the PSUV’s campaigns. Fears about its bias have grown since the council’s president, Tibisay Lucena, attended Chavez’s funeral wearing a PSUV armband.

Those misgivings have only increased in this election cycle. “This time around,” David Smilde, a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America told me, “the government is again abusing its control of the judicial branch, the National Electoral Council, and using state resources, institutions, and employees on its own behalf.” For example, just days after the MUD held a primary to select its candidates, the council ruled that 40 percent of all candidates had to be women, forcing the MUD to reconfigure its slate. The council has also barred several opposition leaders from running for office, and has created a confusing ballot on which the MUD ticket is surrounded by two bogus parties that both incorporate part of its name.

The council’s favoritism has been so glaring that the head of the Organization of American States (OAS), Luis Almagro, wrote a lengthy letter to Lucena condemning the PSUV’s unfair advantages and calling on her to guarantee that she would work for fair elections. “It’s worrying," he wrote, that “the difficulties only impact the opposition parties.” Maduro subsequently called Almagro “garbage.”

The largest monitoring team that the government cleared to observe the elections is from Unasur, a pan-Latin American organization that Chavez founded to serve as a counterweight to the OAS. But even that mission has been riddled with controversy after the Venezuelans vetoed the observer group’s Brazilian delegate, charging that he was biased. Brazil subsequently pulled out of the delegation, as did Chile and Uruguay. Requests by the OAS and European organizations to send observers were rejected out of hand.

A Venezuelan military officer talks to soldiers as they attend a ceremony to kick off the distribution of voting materials at Fort Tiuna military base in Caracas, December 1, 2015.
A Venezuelan military officer talks to soldiers as they attend a ceremony to kick off the distribution of voting materials at Fort Tiuna military base in Caracas, December 1, 2015.
Marco Bello / Reuters
The MUD also has to contend with the gerrymandering of the country’s 87 electoral circuits, which has given a disproportionate weight to Venezuela’s rural states where Chavismo—the socialist movement created by Chavez and backed by Maduro—is strongest. As a result of the system, Venezuela’s six largest states—which comprise 52 percent of the population—only elect 38 percent of the assembly’s members. And even though the opposition trailed the PSUV in the 2010 congressional vote by less than two percent, the government’s party was allocated 96 seats, compared with 64 for its opponents.

Even if the MUD wins a vast majority of the votes, analysts predict that it will come away with a five-to-10 seat majority. That will make it hard for the MUD to effect real change. “It will be difficult for the MUD to win a so-called super-majority of three-fifths, or two-thirds of the seats,” says Caracas-based political consultant Tarek Yorde. Such a majority would allow the MUD to rewrite the constitution and change existing laws.

If Yorde’s prediction comes true, Maduro and the PSUV will have to decide how to work with legislators with whom they have vowed never to cooperate let alone share power.

The embattled Maduro, whose approval rating is hovering around 25 percent, has given no clear indication of what he might do if the opposition wins. Sometimes he has pledged to respect the results. But just as often, he has threatened to fight to protect the “gains” of the revolution. “We are going into a vital battle for the future of the homeland,” Maduro told supporters in late-November. If the MUD wins control of the National Assembly, he said, he “would go to the streets to fight with the people; they will see a son of Chavez, not a coward.” Supporters often punctuate his remarks with the Chavista slogan “¡No volverán!” or “they will never return,” alluding to the opposition.

It is no wonder that fears of violence have mounted, especially after the assassination last week of an opposition leader, Luis Manuel Diaz, while he was addressing supporters at a campaign rally in the central agrarian state of Guarico. Although his murderers were subsequently arrested, the United Nations’ Human Rights Commission called on Maduro’s government to extend security to regime opponents.

ECONOMIC CRISIS

The election comes in the middle of an economic crisis. The country’s GDP is expected to contract by up to ten percent this year, and the annual inflation rate is expected to top 150 percent. The Venezuelan currency is worthless outside the country, and severe shortages of food, medicines, and spare parts have forced many to wait in line for hours each day for staples, such as sugar, corn meal, and flour. “Nothing else really matters,” Smilde told me, “when people are facing daily trials and tribulations just to fulfill their basic necessities. They are tired and many average folks are desperate for a change.”

Oil production remains 20 percent lower than it did when Chavez took office in 1999, even though the country sits on one of the world’s largest crude reserves. Its international reserves have fallen to dangerously low levels, and the Central Bank has even stopped publishing key indicators. Next year, the government has to make about $10 billion in debt payments, stoking fears of a possible default.

Maduro has blamed the country’s economic mess on a war being waged against it by the country’s business leaders in league with the United States and Colombia. But he has produced no new ideas as to how to correct the downward slide. Nor has MUD, which has focused more on criticizing Maduro than producing a detailed blueprint for turning the economy around.

MUD leaders have suggested that companies that the government has expropriated should be returned to their previous owners if they aren’t operating. They haven’t called for ending the government’s costly subsidies or cutting back social programs, though. Nor have they called for unifying the country’s three exchange rates, which have led to widespread corruption and a burgeoning black market that has contributed to the downturn.

For now, the MUD is banking on the incumbent government’s unpopularity and promises to pass a law that would grant amnesty to the country’s political prisoners if it wins control of the Assembly. It has also pledged to mount a recall referendum against Maduro, whose terms ends in 2019.

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro greets supporters as he arrives to a campaign rally with pro-government candidates for the upcoming parliamentary elections in the state of Yaracuy, in this handout picture provided by Miraflores Palace on December 2,
Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro greets supporters as he arrives to a campaign rally with pro-government candidates for the upcoming parliamentary elections in the state of Yaracuy, in this handout picture provided by Miraflores Palace on December 2, 2015.
Miraflores Palace / Reuters

MAJORITY RULES?

Even if the opposition were to win a majority in the assembly, there is no guarantee that it will get to exercise its power. Fears are mounting that the outgoing National Assembly, in which the PSUV holds a three-fifths majority, could grant Maduro special powers, allowing him to rule by decree, effectively limiting the power of an opposition-led assembly. Such possibilities have been widely discussed in the press.

Maduro could also seek to strip the assembly of other powers, setting up a constitutional battle. Given the current make up of the Supreme Court, which is packed with PSUV nominees, Maduro is likely win such a battle.

The government could also seek to operate around the assembly, much like it has done in the states and cities in which it has lost. Following the election of an opposition candidate as mayor of Caracas, the government created a parallel government to which it transferred funds and jurisdictions. It repeated the same trick when PSUV candidates lost gubernatorial races.

In a sense, dealing with an MUD victory after it happens would be easier than trying to prevent it. Anything less than a MUD victory will be viewed as proof of ballot rigging and vote stealing, and could lead to a repeat of last year’s protests that claimed more than 40 lives, and led to pitched street battles in Caracas and other major cities.

Ramos, for one, is playing it safe. She gets out of bed each morning at 4 to start her daily search for food in the city center. Even then, she often has to contend with more than 100 people in front of her in line. “Whatever happens on Sunday,” she says, “I fear for the worst.”

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