With other strategies worn out, opponents of President Nicolás Maduro are hoping to build power at the polls.
By Foreign Policy – Colm Quinn
Nov 19, 2021
Venezuela Opposition Returns to Elections
Venezuelans go to the polls on Sunday for local and regional elections, with the country’s opposition hoping to make inroads. It’s the first time since 2017 that opposition groups will compete against President Nicolás Maduro’s United Socialist Party, indicating a shift in the opposition’s previous boycott tactics.
In another unusual turn, the European Union will send observers for Sunday’s vote, the first time the bloc has sent a delegation to monitor elections in the country in 15 years. They, along with the United Nations and the U.S.-based Carter Center, will assess whether the elections are free and fair.
For Eric Farnsworth, a Latin América expert at the Americas Society/Council of the Americas (AS/COA) the vote itself is only one side of the story. “There’s no election observer who could conceivably come out and say that this was a free and fair election, based on all of the structural advantages that have been built in over the years by the PSUV,” Farnsworth told Foreign Policy, referring to the acronym for the ruling United Socialist Party. Criticisms of the electoral system include a National Electoral Council deemed loyal to Maduro as well as other repressive moves against opposition party leadership last year.
“The deck isn’t stacked against the opposition, there is no deck for the opposition to play with,” Farnsworth added.
That opposition parties are participating indicates an acknowledgment that international support for Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s rightful leader is not enough. Indeed, popular support for the opposition leader has waned considerably since he attempted to seize power, going from 63 percent in 2019 to around 15 percent today, according to pollster Datanalisis.
Though the opposition is too fragmented to mount a significant challenge, the vote is an important first step toward rebuilding institutional networks ahead of far more important votes, including a presidential election expected in 2024. “In baseball terms, this is spring training. This is not the world series,” Geoff Ramsey, Venezuela director at the Washington Office on Latin America, told Foreign Policy. “This is the opposition returning to electoral politics in an incredibly unequal landscape. And trying to test out the electoral system as it exists and reengage with their base on the ground.”
When voting ends on Sunday, Maduro’s government will still be in place, as will the sanctions imposed by successive U.S. administrations. If things are to change, Ramsey said, a new approach from the Biden administration may be necessary. That could start with offering Venezuelan authorities a road map of actions that would lead toward easing sanctions, akin to what Iran was offered in April. “We haven’t seen that same detail being presented, at least publicly, to the Maduro regime,” Ramsey said.
But it’s not just the United States that needs to engage with Venezuela, where a deteriorating economy has caused a widespread exodus of citizens to neighboring states. “The one thing I would like to see is much more Latin American voices in this space. But they’re just not showing up,” AS/COA’s Farnsworth said. “And so then, it comes back to the United States. And that’s not fair necessarily, because that’s not where we want to be, but we’re forced into that role because nobody else is taking leadership.”