In a country where political power is highly centralized in the national government, Venezuela’s December 8 municipal elections would seem to be unimportant. However, these will be the first elections after Nicolas Maduro’s contested election in April, and they will inevitably be interpreted as a referendum not only on “Chavismo without Chávez,” but on the opposition without Chávez.

Venezuela’s opposition, led by former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, is strongest with the middle classes in Venezuela’s major urban centers. Chavismo, in turn, has overwhelming support in Venezuela’s towns and rural areas. This means that the government will likely win a larger number of municipalities. But the opposition theoretically has the chance to win the popular vote. And it is indeed trying to frame the elections as a national plebiscite on the Maduro government. On August 11th Capriles declared: “The changes we want for our country necessarily go through the December 8 elections, because [the municipal elections] will amount to a big consultation, reform, and correction process to democratically get rid of this government. December 8 has to be a big plebiscite to evaluate and decide if the democratic alternative is going to win.”

The opposition’s main liability could be abstention, especially since Capriles and other opposition leaders have strongly pushed the idea that Maduro won the April election through electoral fraud. Capriles has rhetorically navigated this tension by declaring that the opposition needs to win the national vote by a big margin so as to preclude the possibility of fraud: “[April 14] demonstrated that if we win by a small margin, they will steal the elections.”

According to pollster Luis Vicente Leon, the strategy of calling for a protest vote seems like it is indeed motivating opposition voters to turn out. Vicente Leon wrote on Twitter on September 19: “What first seemed like a problem for the opposition (abstention) has been solved by calling for a protest vote, which is elevating the willingness to participate.”

The government is much less interested in framing the elections as a national plebiscite, since it is sure to win most municipalities and will be able to claim victory on that basis. But Vicente Leon argues that it will find it hard not to given that late President Hugo Chávez framed every electoral event as a plebiscite on him and his government. In the past fourteen years Venezuelans have become used to viewing elections, national or regional, and regardless of the rank of the posts in contest, as events of national importance.

Thus the December 8, nationwide municipal elections pose a set of opportunities and risks for both sides. The Maduro government’s candidates will surely win most municipalities, but if it loses the national popular vote it will effectively have lost its first “plebiscite.” This would leave the opposition strengthened and in good position to seek a recall referendum on Maduro in two years. Maduro’s standing as Chavez’s successor would be seriously weakened and probably challenged by other leaders within Chavismo.

However, if Chavismo wins most municipalities and the national vote, it could be disastrous for the opposition. Capriles’ leadership would be questioned, and opposition voters would be demoralized thereby complicating an eventual push for a recall referendum.