A week before December 4 elections to fill 167 seats in Venezuela's single-chamber National Assembly, all major opposition political parties pulled out of the running, handing candidates loyal to president Hugo Chávez an uncontested victory.
While it may look like a shot in the foot, opponents showed that the Chávez regime is losing legitimacy. The appearance of being a police state, with only slim support at the polls, could confound Chávez's efforts to spread his authoritarian populism elsewhere in Latin America and strengthen doubts among followers at home.
Opponents said they did not want to participate in what they feared would be a rigged contest. Vice President José Vicente Rangel called the move sour grapes on the part those who so far have failed to ease the populist strongman's grip on government.
Pulling out, opponents risked further isolation following a series of electoral defeats in an acid climate where Chávez takes every opportunity to bash them while shielding himself behind laws that muzzle free speech and criminalize criticism of public officials.
The National Assembly, in which loyalists had a slight majority, will now belong almost exclusively to Chavistas. Thus, the president and his cronies will dominate all three branches of government.
Not that such an outcome wouldn't have happened anyway. Four out of the five members of the national electoral tribunal are Chávez partisans. Before last year's recall referendum, the government purported to naturalize hundreds of thousands of migrants in a process called "Misión Identidad," thus padding the electoral rolls in its favor.
Election officials later rode around in military trucks registering voters in pro-regime barrios and blocking registration in opposition districts. Meanwhile, government workers who signed the recall petition lost their jobs.
This year, bootleg compact discs circulated in the streets containing, according to reports, the national voter registry, each voter's recent history, and the list of those who signed the petition for the 2004 referendum. The discs existence served as a warning to those who might think about voting against the president's party.
Predictably, monitors noted citizen fears that ballots would not be secret. Even though the National Electoral Council (CNE) promised to discard fingerprinting tied to the voting process, a name register and other data could be combined to determine who selected whom.
There were other irregularities. The Organization of American States (OAS) complained that Chávez partisans used government resources for campaign purposes. European Union observers noted that government media denied access to opponents while private media, though anti-Chávez, provided a platform for loyalist views. Chávez monopolized the airwaves days before the vote with materials he required every government and private station to carry.
Monitors witnessed members of state security forces in some voting stations while pro-government campaign activities-including food distribution, propaganda broadcast from loudspeakers on cars, and posters outside voting tables touting pro-Chávez candidates-took place near others, in violation of election rules. At some stations, workers reportedly kept tables open beyond closing time, hoping that late arrivals would raise the tally.
Despite government efforts to mobilize loyalists, no more than 25 percent of the electorate, or 3.6 million out of 14.3 million voters, bothered to show. The result reveals shallow support for the president well beneath his approval ratings that hover around 50 percent.
As observer findings were released, Chávez branded them "lies" and charged the OAS and European Union with "colluding against the interests of the people and democracy." President of the current National Assembly Nicolás Maduro was as just respectful: "Those bureaucrats you see in the Hotel Tamanaco drinking whiskey with the leaders of the opposition can write whatever they like."
Both the OAS and European Union presented recommendations to put Venezuela's electoral system back on a democratic track: an independent and professional electoral tribunal, an independent audit of the voter registry, independent recounts of election results, stronger bans against use of government resources to support incumbent parties' campaigns, and dialogue with the opposition to improve confidence in the electoral system.
None of these reforms are likely to come about, however. President Chávez didn't get this far by playing straight with competitors. Nonetheless, waning confidence in elections could be taken as a warning sign.
The last time opposition candidates withdrew from Latin American elections, the incumbent governments didn't last long. In 2000, Alejandro Toledo pulled out of his runoff contest with President Alberto Fujimori. Months later, Fujimori stood accused of corruption and resigned. The same year, opposition parties and OAS observers declined to participate in Haiti's presidential contest. Only 5 to 15 percent of the electorate came out to return former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide to office. His regime-supported by cronies and street gangs-collapsed three years later.
This is not to say that Chávez will lose his grip on government anytime soon. He now has all three branches under his thumb and an army of Cuban advisors to spy on his appointees. But his so-called Bolivarian Revolution has been unable to solve unemployment, attack poverty, provide better housing, or reduce crime. In fact, there is no revolution.
Now absent legitimacy, the nature of the Chávez regime becomes clear. At home, Chávez will need increasing doses of force to impose his agenda as his support base shrinks to a small hardcore. And if they haven't already, Venezuela's neighbors may look elsewhere for models to follow.
Stephen Johnson is Senior Policy Analyst for Latin America in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.