“IT WAS a result that was so big, so surprising,” said Tibisay Lucena, the head of Venezuela’s electoral authority, late on July 30th. She was announcing that 8m people had voted in an election for a new, all-powerful constituent assembly dreamed up by President Nicolás Maduro. In fact, it was not surprising and probably not big. A fortnight earlier the opposition had got more than 7m to vote to reject the new assembly in an unofficial plebiscite. So it was predictable that Mr Maduro’s regime would claim a higher turnout. No matter that the electoral authority’s own count—leaked to Reuters—showed that only 3.7m had voted before the polls were due to close. Many said that they did so only because they feared losing government jobs or food rations. The firm that runs the electronic voting system said it had been “tampered with”.
Vote inflation on this shameless scale is “without precedent” in Latin America, according to Carlos Malamud, a historian at the Elcano Institute, a think-tank in Madrid. To the outsider, the region may seem synonymous with electoral fraud. That has not been the case since the return of democracy in the 1980s. Recent elections have generally been free and fair, organised by independent electoral authorities and watched over by qualified observers.
Where there have been claims of fraud, they have been mainly small-scale, though that may have been enough to sway close contests. Ecuador’s opposition cried foul in a presidential election in April this year in which Lenín Moreno, the government candidate, won by barely two percentage points. In Argentina Mauricio Macri’s victory in 2015 may have been wider than the official margin of three points. But in neither case can that be proved. The opposition denounced as fraudulent Mr Maduro’s victory in Venezuela in 2013, with 7.6m votes and a margin of 1.5 percentage points. He rejected calls for an inquiry.
Since then Mr Maduro has lost his majority. The opposition won 7.7m votes in a parliamentary election in 2015, to the ruling party’s 5.6m. Venezuela’s economy continues to deteriorate. A section of the ruling chavista movement opposes the constituent assembly. To conceal popular rejection, he appears to have revived and expanded a defunct tradition in Latin America: the artificial election.
The region stands out in the developing world (and from much of Europe) for its long history of constitutionalism—the Spanish-American countries secured independence by rebelling against Bourbon absolutism. Elections were the norm since the late 19th century (though usually with restricted suffrage). Electoral fraud was the traditional means of political control. It featured stuffed ballot boxes, voting by the dead and vote-buying, notes Mr Malamud.
Although Venezuela’s regime claims to be socialist, its practices are similar to those of the old-school dictators. Their rule featured patrimonialism (capture of public resources by the ruler’s clan) and nepotism. So does Mr Maduro’s: his regime is stuffed with relatives of its leaders.
Mr Maduro’s Venezuela has a partner in reviving bad old habits. In an election last year in Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega secured a third term partly by barring the main opposition. That was an expedient used against populist parties by military-backed governments in Peru in the 1940s and 1950s and in Argentina between 1955 and 1973. It may be what Mr Maduro has in mind for Venezuela’s opposition.
He would be wise to study his country’s political history. General Marcos Pérez Jiménez was proclaimed as president in 1952 by a constituent assembly. Five years later, to secure an (unconstitutional) second term, he organised a plebiscite. The tame electoral authority declared that his plan had the backing of 2.4m voters, with only 364,000 against. As now, the opposition did not recognise the exercise and staged protests. A month after the vote, Pérez Jiménez was ousted in a civilian-military uprising.
Mr Maduro’s regime may be more resilient. But few in Venezuela or in the outside world are fooled by his fantasy voting. A constituent assembly designed to legitimise his suppression of the opposition has further discredited a regime that is now an open dictatorship of the few.