After the death of Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez in 2013, Nicholás Maduro became the country’s president. While Maduro has been in power, the citizens of Venezuela have been enduring years of hunger, bad healthcare, hyperinflation, water and electricity shortages, and many more inconveniences. The unsatisfactory conditions and plummeting economy that have accompanied President Nicholás Maduro in his rise to power certainly do not explain his re-election in a landslide victory in 2018.
Citizens in Venezuela were anything but excited to go to the polls and vote for Maduro on election day. The voter turnout rate saw an 80% decrease from 2013 to 2018, and only half of the voting population showed up to the polls.
The likely and only believable cause of Maduro’s Presidential victory is that it was a fraudulent election. There are multiple claims of election fraud, and evidence of a fraudulent election was strong enough that 46 outside countries did not recognize the election as legitimate. The evidence that points to the election being fraudulent is extensive, and it has several commonalities with theories relating to democratic backsliding. According to Lust and Waldner (2015), democratic backsliding occurs when a country’s institutions undergo changes that lessen citizens’ ability to make enforceable claims upon the government. Electoral procedures, political and civil liberties, and government accountability are all areas under threat when democratic backsliding occurs (Lust and Waldner 2015). In the events surrounding the 2018 election, Venezuela’s electoral procedures, political and civil liberties, and government accountability were all threatened, and the country has been further pushed into democratic backsliding.
With the claims and evidence of a rigged election in 2018, Venezuela’s electoral procedures are under threat. Illegitimate elections are a strong facilitator of democratic backsliding. Democratic elections need to be uncertain, meaning that the victor should not be known until after the votes have been counted (Lust and Waldner 2015). This was not necessarily the case in the 2018 election because Maduro banned many leaders of his opposition from running against him for the Presidential seat. Since Maduro had an extremely high chance of winning if he banned the other popular candidates, the election was not uncertain.
Another sign that democratic erosion is underway is the lack or decrease in political and civil liberties protecting citizens (Lust and Waldner 2015). Venezuelan citizens did not have the crucial democratic liberty of free media during the 2018 presidential election. Maduro’s followers and supporters had most media control, which meant that citizens did not have an abundance of non-government-run media during election time. Maduro taking away free media from citizens is a clear threat of democratic erosion in the country. Further, the arrests of citizens participating in anti-government protests are anti-democratic because citizens must have the freedom to assemble and express their views in a functioning democracy.
A huge part of democratic institutions is the ability for citizens to hold the government accountable for its actions and policies (Lust and Waldner 2015). A democracy can be under threat of erosion if there becomes a decline in citizens’ ability to control the actions of the government. It is shown in Venezuela that citizens had little control over the President throughout the election. First, citizens did not have access to free media because Maduro was controlling most of it, as previously mentioned. Citizens must have control over media for democracy to thrive. Second, Maduro targeted the opposition by mistreating government opposition, arresting government protesters, and even, in some cases, torturing opposition members. Citizens lose the power to control the government when there are extreme punishments for opposing the government.
Another sign of declining government accountability is the ability of government leaders to act outside the boundaries of laws without facing punishment (Lust and Waldner 2015). Due to the circumstances that Maduro created leading up to the election, there were little to no checks on his decisions, which enabled Maduro to act outside of Venezuela’s laws. He abolished the democratic checks and balances that existed in the country to ensure that he would prevail in the election by creating the “constituent assembly” to rewrite the constitution. The “constituent assembly” strategically aided Maduro’s electoral success because it replaced the role of the existing majority-opposition Parliament with a group that strongly supported Maduro. Also, to contribute to the termination of checks and balances on the President, the supreme court has made undemocratic decisions that benefit Maduro. The supreme court ruled in favor of abolishing the power of the majority opposition parliament so that all branches of government would be majority pro-Maduro.
As shown above, evidence of fraud in the 2018 Venezuelan election is highly plausible. President Maduro’s decisions to undermine electoral procedures, take away civil and political liberties, and take away his own accountability are far from the job description of a President in a democratic society. These decisions are clear signs of democratic erosion. Maduro’s last chances of remaining in power and getting re-elected depend on his ability to continue suppressing the power of any group or movement that is a part of his opposition.
Lust, Ellen and David Waldner. 2015. Unwelcome Change, Understanding, Evaluating, and Extending Theories of Democratic Backsliding. Washington, DC. USAID pp 1-15.