One central issue in the ongoing attempted coup in Venezuela is whether or not President Nicolas Maduro is the “legitimate” president. The contention of the Trump administration and right-wing Venezuelan opposition is that the most recent election, and all other Chavista elections since 2015 are themselves fraudulent. They further claim that this passes the presidency to the opposition figurehead Juan Guaidó.
First it must be said that while the Chavistas have won many elections in the last two decades, the real social basis of the Maduro government and the Bolivarian Revolution initiated by Hugo Chávez is in the participation and continuous mobilization of untold millions. That consisted not just in elections and marches, but in the creation of new social justice missions, in bodies of people’s power called communal councils, and in the administration of society at many different levels from which the popular masses were long excluded. This is the real source of “legitimacy” for the Maduro government and the base that is now mobilizing to fend off a possible coup.
But because the corporate media demonization campaign — a necessary precursor to any imperialist military attack — focuses so heavily on disputing the fairness of President Maduro’s victories in the electoral realm, it is crucial to debunk the lies about his legitimacy. Let’s examine the claims.
Any real analysis of the actual election results over the last few elections would find that the Chavista movement as a whole certainly represents the largest plurality of views of Venezuelan citizens, and would meet the same standards of “legitimacy” as the elected governments in capitalist societies.
Facts about Venezuela’s elections
Venezuela has had a very large number of elections during the Chavista period: 24 since 1998. In fact, by the benchmarks of bourgeois electoral democracy Venezuela has to rank as one of the most democratic countries, one where belief in the electoral process to bring change clearly remains strong.
One proof of this is that the number of elected voters has increased by just over ten million. In almost every election since 2009 the number of people who voted has been greater than the number of registered voters in the pre-Chavez period, in both the 1988 and 1993 general elections.
In 2017, in the wake of violent demonstrations where Black people were burned alive and Chavistas were decapitated by the opposition, the Bolivarian government used a clause in the Constitution to convene a Constituent Assembly. The basic rationale of the Maduro government was that the depths of the economic crisis in the country were raising fundamental questions about how to get out of it, and the general direction of the country, and this required a conversation around the basic principles that govern a society, i.e. the Constitution.
Under Venezuela’s Constitution, the president has the right to convene a Constituent Assembly. Maduro’s claim to the presidency at that time was not contested, having been duly elected in 2013.
The opposition abstained from the Constituent Assembly election and has largely abstained from the subsequent three elections for state governors, the presidency, and municipal councils. They then turned around and said the turnout and abstention rates, first in the Constituent Assembly elections and then afterwards, were proof of fraudulence and illegitimacy.
At the center of this entire controversy, then, is whether the officially declared number of voters in the 2017 election — 8,089,320 — was accurate. The opposition made some absurd claims, backed by a few officials from the company who made the voting machines, that the actual turnout was seven million. None of them have produced any evidence contradicting the results of the National Electoral Council.
When contextualized, there is nothing at all outlandish about the 8 million overall vote total. In his first election in 1998 Chavez only received 3,673,685 votes. By 2012, the last election before he died, 8,191,132 Venezuelans cast ballots for him and the socialist movement. In 2013, Maduro narrowly won the presidency with 7,587,579 votes (just 200,000 more than the opposition candidate); that year 15 million Venezuelans cast ballots in total.
Only once in the last decade have the forces of Chavismo gained less than five million votes in the five national elections.
If we assume that practically all the people who voted for President Maduro in 2013 voted in 2017, then only five hundred thousand more people would have had to turn out to reach the total of just over eight million. Eight million is a number within the range of the pro-Chavez turnout in 2012 and the pro-Maduro turnout in 2013.
In other words, the announced vote total in the Constitutional Assembly election is well within the demonstrated voting base of the Bolivarian movement.
The subsequent elections, from a turnout/voting perspective are clearly well within the same range. For instance, the opposition claims that Maduro’s recent election, where 46% of registered voters turned out, delivering over 6 million of 9 million total votes to Maduro, is a sign of his illegitimacy. This was a low turnout by recent Venezuelan standards largely because of the organized boycott by the right.
In the United States, the voter turnout in 2016 was higher among registered voters, but the rate of voter registration here is considerably lower. Among all voting-age adults in the United States, an estimated 27 percent voted for Trump in 2016. By comparison, 29% of all Venezuelan adults voted for Maduro.
In Chile in 2013, with no organized boycott, the presidential election turnout was 43%. In Switzerland in 2015, only 39% of voting-age citizens were registered to vote, and of registered voters only 48% vast ballots. One well-known opposition leader Henri Falcon ran in Venezuela’s 2013 elections, receiving nearly two million votes, and another received nearly 1 million votes, while most from the opposition stayed away entirely.
The over 6 million vote total for Maduro in the May 2018 presidential elections was several hundred thousand votes above what the Bolivarian forces received in 2010 when they won the National Assembly elections, which the opposition participated in and did not call into question. So what’s so unbelievable about these results?
Or, take the recent regional elections to elect state governors in October 2017. Despite claims of fraud, the Chavista’s won 18 states and the opposition five states, the exact same as the 2008 regional elections. Notably the two elections had a similar turnout — 65% in 2008 and 61% in 2017 — and the opposition actually got about three hundred thousand more votes in 2017 than in 2008.
The voting system
The most problematic issue for the opposition’s claims of fraud is that they seem to only claim it when they lose or refuse to participate. Taking again the October 2017 regional elections: It is worth noting that in the lead up to the election, the opposition coalition MUD participated in all the pre-election procedures and approved of the process and preparations.
Following that election, which the opposition lost badly, even though MUD tried to claim fraud the Vice-President of opposition party Democratic Action (AD), which won four of the five states that went to the opposition, stated “so far there is no evidence of fraud.” The other opposition winner, from the Justice First (PJ) party also recognized his own victory. Major opposition figure Falcon recognized his defeat. This is not exactly a ringing endorsement of a fraud-riddled election process.
Another damning point: the National Constituent Assembly is the body that called for both the regional gubernatorial elections in the fall of 2017 and the presidential elections in 2018. If the Constituent Assembly were “illegitimate”— which it’s not — why did the opposition not boycott those regional elections, why did they run vigorously in those elections, and why did they accept their five governorships?
In reality Venezuela has one of the most robust voting systems on the planet. In 2012, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, for instance stated, “Of the 92 elections that we’ve monitored, I would say that the election process in Venezuela is the best in the world.”
It is worth reviewing some aspects of how the electoral system functions:
“Beginning in 2012, Venezuela’s elections used biometric authentication to activate the voting machine…Venezuela’s entire electoral process has and will go through 16 different audits per process. These audits include auditing of the electoral register, the software, the voting books, the hardware, etc.
“Each audit is not only presided over by international observers, but also representatives of each participating political party. The final vote count is confirmed with the physical vouchers that voters put in the receipt box, and then transmitted electronically through a network isolated from the internet and any computer to assure that no interference can occur.
“Once tally scrutinization on the machine finishes, a random paper ballot audit is announced where the machines to be audited are randomly selected drawing numbers, and the machine’s serial number is recorded. 53% of all voting machines in the country are audited on voting day before totalisation. This audit is public (a citizens audit) meaning that members of the community can come into the voting center to observe and corroborate the process. Venezuela is the only country in the world which does an on-the-spot audit after centers have closed.”
Venezuela’s 2018 presidential election was observed by an international mission, although the opposition begged the usual electoral observer institutions to stay away. The mission that came consisted of the African Union represented by the ambassador of the African Union in Washington, a delegation of the Council of Electoral Experts of Latin America (Ceela), chaired by Nicanor Moscoso, who has worked with the Organization of American States in dozens of Latin American electoral processes, among others. They wrote that:
“the elections were very transparent and complied with international parameters and national legislation. The result that emanated from the CNE is a perfect reflection of the will of Venezuelans who went to the polls.”
Also, notably, the same election system was used in the 2015 National Assembly elections where the opposition won — a less acknowledged by the Chavista camp — and, of course, the opposition claimed no fraud then.
Polling and popularity
One other widely discussed issue by those seeking to delegitimize Maduro is the claim that his approval ratings are so low as to prove the case for illegitimacy. This standard of course never gets applied to U.S. presidents. But an actual look at polling data shows a much more complex picture over the last few years of economic crisis.
Most conversations about approval ratings are completely decontextualized. A range of polls showed Maduro’s approval rating hovering in the low 20s for most of the past year. For instance the anti-government pollster Datanalisis said their polling last fall showed Maduro as having a 23 percent approval rating.
Even if that were true — and we know that severe economic downturns do impact approval ratings — around the same time Argentine President Macri, who no one is calling illegitimate and who is helping organize the international conspiracy to oust Maduro, himself had an approval rating of around 26-27 percent. French President Emmanuel Macron, recognized by all nations in the world as French president, also had a 26 percent approval rating around the same time.
Approval ratings don’t tell the whole story. Another poll from early January of this year noted that 84 percent of those polled thought the government and the opposition should engage in dialogue. And further that “81% of those consulted disagree with the economic and financial sanctions currently applied by the U.S. government to Venezuela, while 17% support U.S. measures.”
Two months after Maduro was re-elected in 2018 Hinterlaces asked Venezuelans: “What would you prefer, that the government of President Maduro take effective measures and resolve, even in part, the economic problems of the country or prefer an opposition government?” 58 percent stated Maduro and 39 percent stated the opposition.
Similarly in a poll conducted between January 7-20, 2019 32 percent supported the Great Patriotic Pole (Chavista) electoral alliance, and 33 percent of respondents identified as Chavistas.
The most obviously conclusion from the sum-total of the above evidence is that Chavismo is clearly the largest political force in the country, that broad support exists for the general redistributionist thrust of government policy and that Venezuelans clearly reject foreign intervention and civil war, and prefer peaceful dialogue and constitutional processes to deal with difference between political forces within the country — as has been the consistent position of the Maduro government.
Opposition has no claim to the presidency
The upshot of all of this is, when looking across several elections and several years of polling, there is no evidence that Nicolas Maduro is an illegitimate president. In fact, the opposite is true, of the two people claiming to be President, Maduro is really the only one with anything like a plausible claim.
A charitable reading of the above information suggests that statistically the hardcore of the opposition is most likely about 20-25 percent of the population, while the hardcore of the Bolivarian movement represents roughly 30-40 percent. The other 40-50% of the population has not engaged in politics, or withdrawn from it, or wavers, but this sector trends more to the government than to the opposition electorally, and certainly is not in favor of invasion or civil war. Given the context of unrelenting economic war waged by the United States and Venezuelan elites aimed at sabotaging the Bolivarian Revolution, holding onto such a base of support is an impressive accomplishment of Venezuela’s socialists.
The opposition in Venezuela and their backers in imperialist capitals worldwide are deliberately obscuring these facts to make it easier to pull off their brazen attempted coup.
They are citing Venezuela’s constitution to back up Guaidó’s claim to the office, but the Constitution permits the National Assembly leader to take over for 30 days, only in the event of the president’s “death; resignation; removal from office by decision of the Supreme Tribunal of Justice; permanent physical or mental disability certified by a medical board designated by the Supreme Tribunal of Justice with the approval of the National Assembly; abandonment of his position, duly declared by the National Assembly; and recall by popular vote.”
None of these conditions have been met. Maduro is in fine health, has not resigned or abandoned his post, has not been recalled by popular vote or removed by the courts, and is very much alive. The National Assembly, which is the so-called foundation of Guaidó’s legitimacy, was held in contempt by the supreme court, and not met officially since, but even it was not aware that Guaidó was going to declare himself president when he did so on stage at a protest. The whole pretense of legality is a joke.
Is the U.S. electoral system “legitimate”?
Of course, the concept of “legitimacy” is itself never questioned in the U.S. media. Legitimate to whom? The U.S. government considers it perfectly “legitimate” to have an electoral system where you need to raise nearly $1 billion to be considered a viable presidential candidate. It is “legitimate” to make presidential candidates jump through the often impossible hoops of ballot access and petitioning laws, different in all 50 states, and then to allow private media companies to determine who will be allowed into the debates, using their own criteria which always exclude third parties. In 2016, unelected superdelegates — party insiders — played a decisive role in the Democratic primary.
It is “legitimate” to have a Congress full of millionaires, and no workers, in a society marked by extreme inequality and poverty.
It is considered “legitimate” for lobbyists to control all legislation affecting their industries and profits, and “legitimate” for Super PACs to provide hundreds of millions of dollars in “dark money” to influence elections. It is apparently “legitimate” for state legislatures to gerrymander districts to weaken Black voting power, or throw hundreds of thousands, if not millions, off the voter rolls when the elections are close.
None of this calls into question the “legitimacy” of the U.S. electoral system apparently in the mass media; that is just a term that the big imperialist powers bring out when they have decided to topple a government in Asia, Africa or Latin America.
To be clear, the bulk of Africa and Asia continue to recognize and relate to the Maduro government as the real power in Venezuela, as does the United Nations. Nothing gives the U.S. government and their junior imperialist partners in Europe and Canada the right to decree the “legitimacy” of other countries’ governments, but even by their own statistical standards, the Venezuelan government’s record stands up to scrutiny.