Venezuela’s electoral council says 40% of candidates must be women

The day after Venezuela’s coalition of opposition parties announced its list of candidates to run in the Dec. 6 congressional races, the rules of the game were changed. The National Electoral Council announced late Thursday that at least 40 percent of a party’s candidates must be women.

While that might be good for gender equality it creates a serious problem for the 29-party Democratic Unity Roundtable, or MUD, coalition, which selected its contenders last month in a national primary. Of its list of 110 congressional hopefuls only 11 are women.

“This is like a (soccer) match where the first half is normal but then during the second half there aren’t two goalposts but six,” Jesus Torrealba, the head of the coalition, said in a statement. “And instead of 11 players against 11, now it’s 32 against five. Why? Because the referee has been bought.”

It was unclear Friday how the opposition would meet the requirement.

The policy shift comes as the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela, or PSUV, will be holding its congressional primaries this Sunday. (Perhaps not coincidentally, the organization boasts that half of its candidates are women).

National Electoral Council President Tibisay Lucena said the measure was needed to protect women’s political rights. And PSUV leaders have chastised the opposition for its lack of diversity. They’ve also pointed out that while the MUD had slightly more than 100 candidates in its primary, and appointed many candidates without a vote, the PSUV has more than 1,100 vying for spots.

The opposition has “parliamentary candidates who have been deputies for more than 30 years and they’re hand-picked,” said PSUV Vice President Elias Jaua. “Nobody was consulted about them.”

To critics, however, the decision – which seemed tailor-made to trip up the opposition – is another sign of how worried the ruling party is about holding on to congress. After 16 years of socialist administrations, a foundering economy and rampant crime have set the stage for an upset, and many think the coalition might take control of the body for the first time in a decade.

That would be a major blow to President Nicolas Maduro, who has been able to count on a rubber-stamp congress despite his falling approval ratings and growing unrest.

Jesus Seguias, with Datincorp, a Caracas-based pollster, says if the elections were held today the opposition would win 48 percent of the vote to the ruling party’s 18.

“It’s not that the opposition’s strength is growing,” he said. “What’s happening is that there’s a huge rejection of Nicolas Maduro, even within the rank and file of (his party).”

Falling crude prices, a currency crisis, and the hemisphere’s highest inflation rate have spawned massive lines and shortages of basic goods. According to a June 15 study by pollster Datanalisis, 76 percent of people reported not being able to find what they wanted – or finding it only in small quantities. And 90 percent said they encountered shopping lines “always or almost always.”

In addition, the country is hemorrhaging: Venezuela has the second-highest murder rate in the world after Honduras.

“The government has lost control of the streets, the economy, the currency, prices, the markets, and large geographic sections of the country,” Seguias said, noting that parts of the capital are under such tight criminal control that they’ve become no-go zones for police. “If Nicolas Maduro doesn’t turn the wheel soon, his party is headed for a grand whipping in the elections.”

Even so, the opposition has a track record of blowing leads. Inner turmoil – and the perception that cronyism prevents new blood from rising through the ranks of the coalition – has hampered passion for its cause. And the PSUV still has a formidable get-out-the-vote machine.

“The opposition coalition, shaky in the past, must remain united as vehicle for (public) dissent,” Jason Marczak, deputy director of the Atlantic Council Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center said in a statement. “President Maduro’s supporters do not back him as they did (late President Hugo) Chavez, but his forces will not go quietly into the night.”

Venezuela only set the date for the congressional vote this week, amid growing domestic and international pressure. The seeming reluctance to call the election sparked speculation that it might be delayed or not happen at all.

The race is being watched closely around the hemisphere, including Washington. Despite constant sniping and the lack of ambassadors since 2010, the two countries have been in quiet talks.

Stratfor, a U.S.-based analytical company, speculates that Maduro needs U.S. support – and therefore diplomatic ties – in order to avoid a social and economic meltdown.

In that sense, “it may be no coincidence that the electoral date came relatively soon after the clear opening of tentative negotiations between the United States and Venezuela on the re-establishment of diplomatic relations,” Stratfor wrote.

With almost six months to go before the election, much can change. In the past, at critical junctures, the administration has accused the opposition of plotting coups and assassination attempts.

Torrealba, with the MUD, said he’s certain more traps will be laid before the vote.

“In between now and Dec. 6 they’re going to think up all sorts of barbarities,” he said, “and we'll always know how to respond.”