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Venezuela’s hottest election in years

Venezuela’s hottest election in years

The opposition is gearing up for a strong challenge against Nicolas Maduro.

Analysis | Latin America

Venezuela once again is approaching an opportunity for change as presidential elections are scheduled for 2024 and legislative, regional and local elections for 2025.

The U.S. has suggested it could ease sanctions if the government of President Nicolas Maduro makes democratic advances — for instance by improving its electoral system — and for months there have been rumors of a deal. However, no major announcements have been made, though Maduro has continued to ratchet down his authoritarian hold on Venezuelan politics. Thus, the potential for these elections to change the status quo is uncertain.

The opposition primary and risk of judicial intervention

In response to calls for the need to renew its leadership, the opposition decided to hold a primary election on October 22 to determine its candidate for 2024. This is no small task in a country immersed in a deep humanitarian emergency and in which, to use the words of the United Nations Independent Fact Finding Mission, official policy is to “silence, discourage and quash opposition to the Government of President Maduro.”

The National Primary Commission, an independent body in charge of organizing the opposition primary election, has fought an uphill battle. In Venezuela, there is an electoral branch of government headed by the National Electoral Council. The Primary Commission sent several communications to the Electoral Council before June 5 of this year, asking for meetings to evaluate the possibility of the Electoral Council providing technical assistance, including access to the official voting centers, providing security and guaranteeing public order.

However, there was no answer and on June 15, almost all the members of the Electoral Council resigned under strong pressure from the government, and an irregular process of appointment of new members took place. As a result, the Primary Commission decided it would forge ahead, independently organizing the primary.

More than three months later, and exactly a month before the primary was to take place, the new Electoral Council publicly addressed the requirements of the Primary Commission. The Electoral Council recommended moving the date to November 19 and using Venezuela’s automated voting system.

The Electoral Council said nothing, however, about the participation of María Corina Machado, Henrique Capriles, or Freddy Superlano. These candidates were disqualified to run for public office via unconstitutional administrative proceedings by the Venezuelan Comptroller. Insiders suggest that the Electoral Council would not prohibit their participation in the primary, but that they could not control the actions of the Supreme Court of Justice.

The judiciary plays a significant role in the repression of the government’s opponents. It was precisely the Supreme Court that ordered the suspension and repeat of the governor’s election in Barinas state when it was lost by Argenis Chávez, the brother of late President Hugo Chávez, in November 2021, saying Freddy Superlano, the winning candidate, was actually disqualified.

The Primary Commission issued a public statement explaining that, with the primary elections just days away, it was not possible to change course and move the date. The Electoral Council replied with its own public statement saying that it holds exclusive competence to carry out electoral proceedings.

This latest response from the Electoral Council underscores a possibility that has always been present: a judicial intervention in the opposition primary. The Supreme Court has consistently acted as an arm of the executive under Maduro and Hugo Chávez before him. If such an intervention takes place, opposition candidates will need to find another strategy to participate in the 2024 elections.

Opposition coordination

Over the past 20-plus years, the opposition has struggled to coordinate behind a single strategy. There is a long history of elite divisions over who controls Venezuela’s petro-state apparatus. And opposition divisions are characteristic of countries ruled by authoritarian governments — from communist Poland, to South African apartheid, to Chile under Pinochet.

There have been a number of cases in Venezuela where the opposition has been able to coordinate, such as the 2015 legislative elections which it won in a landslide. The Maduro government fully understands this difficulty and does whatever it can to divide the opposition. This last-minute offer by the CNE to organize the primary election fits clearly within this strategy.

There are two additional challenges. First, the lifting of the above mentioned political disqualifications had been one of the main demands by the United States in negotiations surrounding possible sanctions relief. If a deal is reached before the elections, Machado or Capriles might be able to run. If not, and one of them wins, it will likely create a period of conflict within the opposition over a plan for succession and quite possibly a move to boycott by affected candidates.

Second, it is likely that candidates who are not running in the primary will nevertheless run in the presidential election, for example, comedian Benjamin Rausseo or Zulia governor Manuel Rosales. If and when they do, it could divide the opposition vote, thus allowing Maduro to win reelection with minority support.

Whether these challenges are constructively met or not, it is important to take a step back to appreciate this moment. It is remarkable that, within a year of a contentious decision to put an end to Juan Guaidó’s interim government, the Venezuelan opposition has unified around an electoral strategy. This has not happened since 2015.

Indeed, Machado, the person who has been most opposed to an electoral solution over the years, is now the leading candidate. The primary itself has done what primaries should do – it has brought candidates in closer contact with the people and generated popular enthusiasm and engagement.

Furthermore, the Primary Commission has been courageous and judicious in organizing the event. Although much still needs to be done to thicken coordination among opposition leaders and parties, and their connection to the population, these achievements are important and should be acknowledged.

International engagement

Venezuela’s conflict and the potential for an electoral solution should be on the agenda of international stakeholders. The humanitarian emergency has forced almost eight million Venezuelans to flee, many to the United States. More than half of the population lives in poverty and faces food insecurity.

Meanwhile, the oil industry and productive apparatus have suffered deeply due to corruption and mismanagement, as well as U.S. financial and oil sanctions. Also, illegal mining has proliferated, leading to increased destruction of Venezuela’s pristine wilderness and the growth of armed and criminal groups. The cost of doing nothing is high.

More engagement from other countries in the region such as Colombia, Brazil and even Chile, has the potential to bring the Maduro government back to the negotiation table. Working for better electoral conditions, including international observation, could in turn result in a reasonable agreement between the U.S. and Venezuela on sanctions relief.

The U.S. and other countries should engage with the Venezuelan authorities, as well as with the opposition and civil society, in the search for a peaceful and democratic solution. There have been closed-door meetings between U.S. and Venezuelan officials over the past six months and repeated rumors of an imminent deal. However, major announcements have not been forthcoming and time is running out for a deal that could take advantage of the electoral context.

Photo Credit: Venezuelans line up to vote in the Venezuelan national consultation called by the National Assembly 2017. (Edgloris Marys/Shutterstock)
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