A protest in Caracas, in January 2019, following the disputed presidential election in Venezuela. Photo credit: Voice of America (public domain)
Freedom House Rating
Federal Presidential Republic
October 2021 (due)
April/May 2024 (due – but the international community and opposition want it to be earlier following disputes over the 2018 presidential election)
December 6, 2025 (due)
December 6, 2020
May 18, 2018
October 15, 2017
Venezuela held legislative elections on December 6, amid a boycott by the opposition and low turnout (31 percent). With these elections, widely considered to be a sham, President Nicolás Maduro gained control of all of Venezuela’s major government institutions. Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis and political standoff continue, although the opposition’s future remains uncertain.
For background: From 1958 until 1998, Venezuela had three dominant parties that governed in turn under the Punto Fijo Pact. The leaders of the three parties were anti-dictator (having removed the military dictator Marcos Pérez Jiménez) and anti-communist, and “puntofijismo” brought stability, prosperity, and democracy (even if it was imperfect).
However, the 1998 elections in Venezuela led to a major political realignment, and ushered in leftist strongman Hugo Chávez, a populist and self-described Marxist. His United Socialist Party (PSUV) also won control of the legislature. Chávez went on to govern until his death in 2013, and under his rule, Venezuela began its descent into dictatorship. Chávez died in 2013, and his handpicked successor, Nicolás Maduro, assumed the presidency.
Repression worsened under Maduro. Nevertheless, the opposition persisted. In 2015, despite harassment, intimidation, and an uneven playing field, the opposition Movement for Democratic Unity (MUD) coalition managed to win a supermajority in the National Assembly. For the first time since 1999, PSUV and its allies did not control the legislature, which has significant de jure powers.
However, Maduro, having no intention of “surrendering the revolution,” and fearing he would lose the upcoming regional and presidential elections, called for elections for a “Constituent Assembly” in 2017. These elections took place in the midst of conflict with the National Assembly, protests, and a worsening economic crisis. The opposition boycotted; therefore, all of the members are loyal to Maduro. The Constituent Assembly continues to operate as a parallel legislature, attempting to thwart the National Assembly.
The disputed presidential elections in May 2018 continued the crisis. Officials declared Maduro the winner, but both the opposition and international analysts denounced the elections as illegitimate. In fact, the opposition mostly boycotted the polls.
Because Venezuela’s constitution stipulates that the leader of the National Assembly becomes interim president if the office is vacant, many of the world’s free democracies recognized then-35-year-old Juan Guaidó as interim president until the country holds new elections.
As a major oil producer, Venezuela should be a rich country, but due to poor governance, the country is in a humanitarian crisis. Hyperinflation has resulted in 90 percent of Venezuelans being unable to afford sufficient food, and as many as 3.4 million people (more than 10 percent of the population) have fled since 2015. Furthermore, the capital, Caracas, is one of the most violent cities in the world.
The opposition went into these elections divided. Although the long-fractious opposition united around Guaidó in 2019, cracks are beginning to show.
Guaidó and others decided to boycott. On the other hand, prominent opposition figures such as former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles have said the opposition should contest the elections. While Guaidó aimed to avoid legitimizing a fraudulent election, Capriles hoped to galvanize a Belarus-style protest movement that would ultimately lead to Maduro’s fall from power. Importantly, a divided opposition will likely help Maduro remain in power.
The international community (at least the international democratic community) has called on Venezuela to hold presidential elections before it holds parliamentary elections. Moreover, members of both the opposition and the international community have called for the parliamentary elections to be delayed until free and fair elections can be guaranteed.
Venezuela is a major oil producer. Therefore, major powers have involved themselves in Venezuelan politics. Authoritarian regimes such as Russia, China, and Iran back Maduro and most of the free world backs the opposition.
Scott Smith, AP (December 7, 2020): Legislative election leaves Venezuela in political standoff
Francisco Toro, Washington Post (December 7, 2020): With a Soviet-style election, Nicolás Maduro tightens his grip on Venezuela
Ciara Nugent, Time (December 7, 2020): ‘Maduro’s Grip on the System is now Total.’ Venezuela’s Opposition Faces Uncertain Future After Parliamentary Elections
Ana Hererro, Washington Post (October 24, 2020): Venezuelan opposition figure Leopoldo López flees to Colombia
Robin Emmott, Reuters (October 7, 2020): EU rules out sending observers for Venezuela’s Dec. 6 vote
Stratfor (September 11, 2020): Legislative Elections Risk Leaving Venezuela’s Opposition in Shambles
The Economist (September 10, 2020): No good options for Venezuela’s divided opposition
Updated December 9, 2020