For four years the opposition to Venezuela’s president Nicolás Maduro refused to take part in elections that they believed would be rigged. But in a change of strategy, last weekend they fielded candidates nationwide in regional voting — and lost heavily.
Maduro’s revolutionary socialist party PSUV won at least 19 of the 23 governorships on offer (one result is still in dispute) and more than 200 of the 335 mayoral posts, including the mayoralty of Caracas. “Christmas has come early for us,” said Diosdado Cabello, the powerful socialist party number 2.
The outcome leaves hard choices for the country’s fragmented opposition about the work needed to tackle Maduro’s regime via the ballot box. It is also a setback for many of the international backers of opposition leader Juan Guaidó, who the US recognises as the country’s legitimate interim president.
“The opposition, the US, Europe and most countries in Latin America are moving towards an acceptance that the process of democratisation is going to require negotiation,” said Michael Penfold, professor of political economy and governance at the IESA, a business school in Caracas. “The discussion in Venezuela has to move towards what is feasible, not simply what is desirable.”
For the first time in 15 years, the EU sent an election observer mission to Venezuela, a decision that some critics said lent legitimacy to the polling. But there was still widespread international criticism.
“The regime grossly skewed the process to determine the result of this election long before any ballots had been cast,” said Antony Blinken, US secretary of state. New York-based Human Rights Watch highlighted reports of irregularities, threats and attacks on election day. “There are no conditions for free and fair elections in the country,” said Tamara Taraciuk, the group’s acting deputy director for the Americas.
The EU itself gave a mixed assessment, saying voting was “organised under better electoral conditions compared to previous processes”, but condemned the government for its “extensive use of state resources” during campaigning and for barring some candidates.
Maduro’s ruling party was also helped by the deeply divided opposition, which split the vote.
“If you added up the votes across the country of the MUD and the Alliance [the two main non-government blocs] then you’d get a powerful anti-government force,” said Luis Vicente León, head of local pollster Datanalisis. “United they would have won significantly more governorships.”
Over 100 parties stood in the vote, littering ballot papers with aspirational names such as Progressive Advance, Hope for Change, Venezuela First, Procitizens and A New Era. More than 70,000 candidates ran, the vast majority were from small opposition groups. On average, there were 23 candidates for each of the 3,082 public posts on offer.
“I found it a bit confusing,” said 74-year-old Mayra Hernández after casting her vote in a middle-class neighbourhood in eastern Caracas. “At every election there seem to be more and more options.”
Speaking after the election, Guaidó acknowledged some splits, but said “this is not the time for fights between parties, not the time for fights between egos over political leadership. It’s time for reflection, unity and to work for Venezuelans.”
He and other anti-government figures stressed the need for “renovation”, “rebirth” and “restructuring” ahead of presidential elections due in 2024.
Such comments are “what we’re hearing across the political leadership, but no one is really saying how they’re going to do it”, said Maryhen Jiménez, a Venezuelan political scientist and postdoctoral research associate at Oxford university. “That’s the task and it’s going to take time.”
The US and other countries, including the UK, must decide in January whether to recognise Guaidó as the rightful interim president of Venezuela for another year.
They have regarded him as such ever since early 2019 when, with the backing of the Trump administration, he launched an audacious bid to oust Maduro, claiming that Maduro had usurped the presidency by announcing victory in a bogus election.
The US has hinted heavily that it will give Guaidó at least another year. “I don’t expect any change in that regard,” Brian Nichols, assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere, told the House Foreign Affairs Committee recently.
But the issue is not clear cut. In private, even figures within Guaidó’s circle have said they felt uncomfortable with the idea of extending his mandate. The EU has already quietly backed away from recognising him as interim president, referring to him instead as an important figure within the opposition.
When the UK considers the issue, it will also have to weigh up a dispute between Maduro and Guaidó over ownership of gold in the vaults of the Bank of England. Colombia and Brazil — Venezuela’s two most important direct neighbours — are likely to back Guaidó for now, although that could change after their own elections in 2022.
Meanwhile, Maduro and an opposition delegation are still involved in Norwegian-brokered talks in Mexico, which are aimed at finding a solution to the political stalemate. Maduro broke off the last round in protest at the extradition of one of his close allies to the US and this week said “the conditions still do not exist” to return to talks.
“It’s going to be a long road towards democratisation and not the kind of short, scenic, heroic route that many believed in three years ago,” Penfold said.