Rarely does a country that elects governors and mayors deserve the attention of the world. However, the regional and local elections in Venezuela, to be held this coming Sunday, seem to be an exception. All this occurs at a time when the international community is taking decisive steps for both the Maduro regime and the opposition to resume the negotiations facilitated by Norway in Mexico City, conversations that are currently temporarily interrupted by Chavismo. The central objective of this negotiation process is to try to build an electoral and institutional path that allows the restoration of constitutional and democratic order in the country.
This is how these elections are seen by various international actors, including the European Union, which assists with a broad observation mission; and the United Nations, which participates with a commission of experts. Both perceive their participation as a “test”To verify that Maduro is in a real disposition to allow free and fair elections, while a final timetable is being negotiated to organize legitimate presidential and legislative elections. The United States, through the Carter Center, is also sending another commission of experts to validate the real situation of the Venezuelan electoral system.
These elections also mark a turning point for the Venezuelan opposition in the terrible political crisis facing the country: it returns to the electoral arena after several years without participating in them. This return to participation comes after the increasingly weak interim of Juan Guaidó, who seeks to extend his mandate for a fourth year in January 2022 – even when the National Assembly that he presides has expired and has been reduced to a small delegated commission. An interim that so far has failed in its ability to produce a democratic transition in the country and that has left a once powerful opposition coalition deeply divided and with an international community whose support has been fading from almost sixty countries that recognized it less of a ten. Despite this, the United States aims to renew that recognition and will continue to maintain economic and financial sanctions against the oil company (PDVSA) and the Central Bank; While the Venezuelan political parties, which previously unconditionally supported the extension of the interim office (agglomerated in a parliamentary coalition called G4), remain fragmented as to whether or not to continue giving their support, although they continue to approve of maintaining the strong international restrictions on Venezuela.
Many fear, correctly, that the presence of the European Union observation will allow the Maduro regime to be legitimized by taking advantage of Guaidó’s weakness; But so far none of the elections organized by Chavismo, both to renew the presidency in 2018 and the national assembly in 2020, have met the necessary conditions to be considered legitimate. And as if that were not enough, a few weeks ago, the regime has become the subject of a formal investigation by the International Criminal Court in The Hague due to its systematic violation of human rights. All these events keep Chavismo isolated globally without any relevant recognition beyond powerful allies such as China, Cuba, Turkey and Russia, who have taken advantage of the Venezuelan crisis to reduce the influence of the United States in Latin America. An influence that has been questioned again with the advance of the same authoritarian model in Nicaragua and the return to power by the ballot box of the party of Evo Morales in Bolivia. All this in the context of a Latin American electoral cycle, which after the pandemic, and as a result of the biggest recession in decades that deepened social inequality throughout the region, points to a strengthening of the left in Chile, Brazil and Colombia after having won presidential elections in Mexico, Argentina and Peru.
Maduro has taken advantage of this new regional context, somewhat more friendly to his ideological affinities – but not very willing to acknowledge it unconditionally – to promote a limited electoral opening without, for example, having yet released all political prisoners. An opening marked by a renewal of the electoral authorities that took place from negotiations with various sectors of the opposition and Venezuelan civil society. The appointment of the new members of the National Electoral Council has made it possible to carry out various audits of both the electoral registry and the electronic voting systems, which reputed directors of the electoral body, among them, Roberto Picón, the greatest electoral expert of the opposition coalition , has validated favorably.
However, at the political and judicial level, barriers to electoral competition remain problematic: administrative interventions by various political parties continue, the use of selective disqualifications continues, which have also been extended to candidates allied to the revolution, and the use of excessive means and public resources for the official campaign. To this must be added that many political leaders, who could have competed for various positions, remain in exile.
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Given these circumstances, everything indicates that Chavismo will win the elections in most of the states and municipalities of the country. A victory whose dimensioning will depend on abstentionism and the internal fractures of the opposition: divisions, many of them induced by the same government through maneuvers of different tenor. The results will also depend on the effectiveness of the famous “auction” client operation that Chavismo will deploy. Despite these severe restrictions, the opposition, even with its fractures, can surprise in the largest states of the country and also in some Andean as well as insular regions. In the worst case scenario, the opposition will win around three governorships out of the 24 states, and in the best case it can win six to eight of them. If the turnout exceeds 50% of the electoral roll, discounting the emigration of many voters abroad (something that various polls see unlikely), the opposition, in its different variants, could win the national vote. A sign that would not be despicable.
The results of these elections will have both national and international political implications. Depending on the performance of the opposition, at the domestic level, a debate will open on the need to rebuild the political leadership and the characteristics of the coalition and the rules that surround its decision-making process. The opposition will not abandon the unit, but will probably decide to focus less on the interim, seeking to improve its internal positioning, preparing for a longer electoral route. That will create various dilemmas for the United States; who will continue to support the interim but with less and less capacity for political influence over what is happening in the country. This in turn may lead those same parties to promote changes in the composition of the delegation of the unitary platform in the negotiations in Mexico City.
The Maduro regime will take advantage of the results to try to show that the regional and local elections, more than an electoral opening, was a real democratic concession, and thus obtain greater external recognition. But until there is a firm agreement in Mexico City that satisfies the international community, especially the United States, the idea that Venezuela is heading towards its democratization and its final economic recovery will be more of a mirage than a reality.
Michael Penfold is a Global Researcher at the Wilson Center in Washington and Senior Lecturer at IESA in Caracas.
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