A Questionable Election Outcome in Venezuela

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has held his current seat since the death of previous president Hugo Chavez in 2013. After taking over the helm of an oil-rich nation led by a well-liked figure who initiated a series of popular but unstable economic policy decisions, Maduro has built his presidential legacy by perpetuating the most damaging of these policies while failing to win a similar measure of respect and support among the Venezuelan people.

Now facing an inflationary crisis, citizens of what was until recently one of the wealthiest nations in South America have gone to the polls to choose a leader who will hold the position for a six-year term.

Elections took place this past weekend between Maduro and challenger Henri Falcon, but even before the polls opened, large numbers of Venezuelans planned to boycott the process, believing that the results would be manipulated. So far, these predictions appear to have been accurate. Despite evident popular sentiment and analyst expectations, Maduro walked away with 68 percent of the vote on Sunday. These results seem improbable, and the international community already appears to be mobilizing in condemnation.

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Citizens in Caracas turned out immediately in protest following the announcement of the results, many attributing the 40-point difference to—among other actions—vote-buying schemes designed to leverage the desperation of poor Venezuelans who have already been driven to the brink of starvation by the country’s devalued currency.

While many anti-government politicians and activists have been persecuted and forced to flee the country, Henri Falcon appears poised to stay and play a leadership role in ongoing protests. His position appears to be backed by at least 14 nations throughout the Americas (a growing list that includes Brazil, Mexico and Colombia). Members of the coalition have pledged to apply both diplomatic and economic pressure to the seemingly illegitimate government until it rectifies an electoral process that does not meet international standards.

A few serious obstacles impede the path toward grassroots-level change in Venezuela, and within these obstacles are lessons for all nations who find themselves facing internal corruption at the electoral level. First, in spite of—and possibly because of—economic desperation and precarious access to vital resources, many Venezuelans are not focused on presidential politics. According to polls and interviews, what might otherwise have become a formidable tide of outrage may be giving way to quiet disappointment and resignation. Second, a status quo has taken hold among many citizens here, since Maduro has held the position for five years. Despite his lack of success and low odds of future turnaround, his status as a fixture may prevent deeper anti-corruption sentiment from taking hold. 

But external pressure from the international community may be strong enough to initiate action. So far, El Salvador and Cuba have chosen to stand behind Maduro, but the European Union, most Latin American countries, and the US appear to back the opposition. A tipping point may be reached if the US imposes sanctions on the Venezuelan oil sector, which so far has not happened. The events of the week ahead will provide us with predictive information about Venezuelans’ fight against corruption and the country’s prospects over the next six years.