Venezuela’s regional elections Sunday were distorted by an uneven playing field, violence and injunctions against opposition leaders, European Union election observers said Tuesday.
But the mere presence of independent international monitors, the first in 15 years to witness a Venezuelan vote, underlined how profoundly President Nicolás Maduro has cemented himself into power in Venezuela since taking office in 2013.
After years of suppressing dissent with force and subverting the vestiges of Venezuela’s democratic institutions, Maduro has perfected a political system where he no longer has much fear of international scrutiny when competing against carefully calibrated opponents, according to analysts and opposition leaders.
The government showed that by banning the most prominent and popular opposition leaders from running for office, dividing opposition parties, encouraging voter apathy and keeping a loyal minority dependent on government handouts, it can win elections without resorting to outright fraud — even with minimal popular support.
The ruling Socialist Party won at least 19 of Venezuela’s 23 governorships, as well as the majority of mayoral offices, despite presiding over a destroyed economy and having the support, polls show, of only about 15% of the people. One in five Venezuelans has fled the country under Maduro’s rule, and 95% of those who remain don’t earn enough to meet basic needs, according to a study by the country’s main universities.
The ruling party’s sweep was greatly aided by the divisions within the opposition. Some opposition leaders boycotted the vote, as most of them did in other recent elections. Those who chose to participate divided votes with factions that had made pacts with Maduro or adopted a softer line against the president to take advantage of the economic liberalization that he has allowed in recent years.
The EU observation mission said Tuesday that it could not call Sunday’s vote free or fair, in part because of the unfair advantages enjoyed by the ruling party, and the lack of rule of law.
“There’s a political situation that’s together with the grave socioeconomic situation has provoked the exodus of millions of Venezuelans,” Jordi Cañas, the representative of the European Parliament with the observer mission, said Tuesday at a news conference in the capital, Caracas.
The mission, however, highlighted several democratic improvements in Sunday’s elections, going as far as to call the country’s electronic vote processing system “reliable.”
The United States, which does not recognize Maduro’s government, called the election deeply flawed, but commended the opposition candidates who decided to participate to keep the few democratic offices they still held.
At polling places in Caracas on Sunday, many voters expressed little confidence in the fairness of the election, but said they had decided to show up anyway, in some cases because they viewed their vote as their last tool in a fight for change.
“I know the whole process is controlled,” said Blas Roa, 55, a carpenter in Caracas, who voted for the first time since 2015. “But if I don’t vote, I’m not doing anything.”
Most Venezuelans didn’t bother.
Only 42% of voters cast ballots, the lowest turnout in any election in which the opposition had participated in the last two decades. After 20 years of Socialist rule, few in the country still nurture hopes of radical change, focusing instead on taking advantage of the new economic freedoms to improve their precarious livelihoods.
That government-induced apathy ended up being Maduro’s biggest weapon in the elections, said opposition leader Freddy Superlano, who ran for governor in the ranching state of Barinas, once a major Socialist Party bastion and home of the party’s founder, Hugo Chávez.
That contest remained too close to call Tuesday afternoon.
The outcome would have been different, Superlano said, if opposition factions had put aside their misgivings and mounted a concerted campaign.
“We’re fighting not against the candidate, but against all the power of the state,” he said by telephone from Barinas.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.