Venezuela held elections for its 23 state governors Sunday amid rising malnutrition, hunger, hyperinflation and a looming debt crisis. In a fair contest, candidates backed by dictator Nicolás Maduro would have been crushed. But Venezuela is now a police state at war with its people. The truth has little chance on a good day, even less on a so-called election day.
This is not to say opposition victories were impossible. As we went to press, results had not yet been announced. But Maduro controls the national electoral council (CNE) and therefore has significant power to influence the outcome. In states the regime considers strategically important, he will put his thumb on the scale as necessary. He might also allow some opposition victories to support his claim that Venezuela remains a democracy.
To interpret Sunday’s results requires context. Remember that this election was held—10 months after its regularly scheduled date—to ward off European Union sanctions. Maduro sought to showcase a fair election so that the EU will back his continuing charade of “dialogue” with the opposition. An international community that is paying attention won’t fall for it. Sunday’s exercise in the Cuba-backed dictatorship was a sham.
Maduro had other motives as well. He wants to lull Venezuelans into the false sense that a transition away from communism is possible at the ballot box. That illusion has so far held back rebellion.
He also seeks to legitimize his illegal “constituent assembly,” elected on July 30—from an unchallenged list of candidates—to replace the Legislature and rewrite the constitution. He said voting Sunday was an endorsement of the new assembly and any opposition governor who will not swear allegiance to it will be removed.
The fraud was under way long before the first vote was cast. The dictatorship announced the election only a month in advance. Candidates rushed to submit their names under a five-day deadline. Later the regime decided to hold a day of primaries. But when antigovernment candidates who lost the primaries asked to withdraw and throw their support to the primary winners, the regime refused to take their names off the ballot.
The effect was to spread the opposition vote among numerous candidates, all running against a single regime-backed candidate appearing on multiple party tickets. For example, in Táchíra state, which is known for its anti-Caracas, rebellious character, incumbent chavista Gov. José Vielma Mora appeared on the ballot under 10 pro-government logos. He squared off against nine opposition candidates on 11 tickets. Ballots in the other states looked similar.
The government further weakened the opposition’s chances by relocating voting stations, some to dangerous neighborhoods. Some 274 polling places were moved, creating public confusion. With no free press, candidates, who have few resources anyway, had a hard time getting their message out.
Frustrating the public with tricks has been the modus operandi of the regime since Hugo Chávez first consolidated power in the 2000s. In practice they are only games. The regime holds the trump card in that the CNE uses electronic voting machines, controls the voter registry, and does not allow opposition audits. Yesterday it made sure voting lines moved at a glacial pace.
Government critics long held that London-based Smartmatic, which used to provide the regime with voting-machine technology, was complicit in its shenanigans. The company always denied it. Smartmatic is no longer a provider for Venezuela and now it alleges regime cheating in the July 30 constituent assembly election. It says the government invented one million votes in its final tally. The CNE rejects the claim.
Monkey business at the polls is only part of the story. There are more than 400political prisoners in Venezuela today, including many sitting mayors. The regime also has forbidden some opposition candidacies on trumped-up charges so as to eliminate political talent from the competition.
Venezuela’s opposition leaders initially called for a boycott of Sunday’s elections. They later backtracked, arguing that the opposition could win. Yet even if they do score victories, even in a majority of states, opposition governors will be essentially powerless. In a country where most of the wealth is concentrated in the state-owned oil industry, the regime can and does often starve states governed by opponents of resources. Maduro won’t hesitate to put the most effective opposition governors in jail.
The National Guard will continue to enforce the repression, which will grow worse as hunger and famine spread and the population gets more desperate. Even Maduro understands that he sits on a ticking time bomb. Last month he announced “Plan Rabbit,” a project aimed at getting Venezuelan city-dwellers to breed and eat the furry creatures as a source of protein.
Sunday’s phony balloting changes nothing. Venezuelan democracy is dead.
Write to O’Grady@wsj.com.