Regional election in Venezuela is a test for Maduro and for the opposition that wants to defeat him at the polls

This Sunday, Venezuela will hold a regional election whose outcome will have a huge impact on the local political scene and on the strategies of the government of Nicolás Maduro and his opponents. It is not just about electing 23 governors, 335 mayors and other local authorities. What is at stake are the chances for Chavismo to regain some external legitimacy — for the first time in 16 years there will be a qualified international observation, from the European Union (EU) — and for the opposition, fragmented into five coalitions, to define which of its strands will have more weight going forward.

In addition to the EU envoys, another 300 observers from 55 countries are in the country, according to the National Electoral Council (CNE), recently reformed by opposition and international pressure. It remains a questioned body, which in this election will be subjected to a trial by fire. The EU’s final report is eagerly awaited by all countries that were unaware of Maduro’s re-election in 2018, including Brazil.

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With the “interim presidency” of Juan Guaidó becoming untenable from a legal point of view, the international community is debating how to relate to Venezuela from 2022 onwards, and the approval or not to the regional elections will have enormous weight in this discussion.

In the national territory, there is no doubt that Chavismo is dominant, although polls show that today the intention to vote for candidates of the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) is only 23%. But outside the country, the government has suffered significant defeats, including the extradition of businessman Alex Saab, for many Maduro’s figurehead, from Cape Verde to the US, and the decision of the International Criminal Court (ICC) to open a formal investigation against Venezuelan authorities for alleged crimes against humanity committed after 2014.

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Today, the PSUV holds 19 of the 23 state governments, and 306 of the 335 municipalities. Of the four opposing coalitions that will participate in the elections — the most radical wing, including the acronym Come Venezuela, by Maria Corina Machado, does not participate — two are more relevant: the Unitarian Platform, formed by weighty parties such as First Justice (PJ) and Popular Will (VP), and the Democratic Alliance, led by former Chavez and former presidential candidate Henry Falcón.

But there are nuances, which are crucial to understanding the moment of the so-called Venezuelan democratic field. The “interim government” of Guaidó, still recognized by more than 50 countries, including Brazil, is formally in the Unitary Platform, but has remained distant from the electoral process. It is known that Guaidó, now a worn-out figure in his country, was against electoral participation, but within his party, the VP, the internal debate was won by those who preach the electoral route as the best alternative to bring about change.

Capriles versus Guaido

One of the main defenders of the need to recompose the electoral path is the former governor of Miranda state and former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, already positioned for the 2024 presidential elections. The failure of Guaidó and its allies to achieve a quick exit from Mature power has strengthened leaders like Capriles, who want to defeat Chavismo at the polls. For the “interim government”, they are accomplices of Chavismo and are doomed to lose fraudulent elections.

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— We still cannot talk about fair, free, transparent and verifiable elections. What international observers say will be fundamental to legitimize, or not, the electoral route as a political strategy – explains analyst Oswaldo Ramírez Colina, director of the consulting firm ORC.

If Chavismo wins within rules considered democratic, says Colina, “the elections will be legitimate. But this does not imply acknowledging past claims”. The government’s move, he says, “is to return victorious to the dialogue table in Mexico and return to the charge with the request for relaxation of international sanctions.”

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If, on the contrary, the opposition that bets on the electoral route achieves a significant number of state and municipal governments, the “interim government” of Guaidó could suffer a double setback: Maduro would show the world that he accepted a democratic election, and the opposition that participates it would consolidate for the 2024 presidential elections, burying other avenues of defeat for Chavismo.

“Voting isn’t enough, but not voting either,” Capriles says.

In the opinion of the analyst Argelia Ríos, “this is a very special electoral process, because the oppositions compete against the government and against each other”.

— I see a victory for the participating opposition as difficult. Without union there is no paradise in Venezuela. These are dark times for opponents of Chavismo – she says.

Recent polls show that 42% of Venezuelans consider themselves opposition voters, but of that total, only 9% continue to support the “interim government” in Guaidó. Another 36% are not on the opposition or government side.

For the professor of Constitutional Law José Vicente Haro, from the Central University of Venezuela, “it is very difficult to justify the interim presidency of Guaidó from 2022 onwards”.

— Guaidó’s leadership was greatly affected by its own actions. on January 5th [data em que vence, formalmente, o mandato de Guaidó como presidente da Assembleia Nacional paralela, controlada pela oposição], its status should be revised – points Haro.

Many expect the international reaction to the result. In the view of Ivan Briscoe, director of the Latin America program at the International Crisis Group, “the Joe Biden government is on hold, and will assess the EU report without taking any big risks.”

—For the US, it’s a delicate balance. Biden cannot give positive signals about Maduro because that would affect American policy in the state of Florida – comments Briscoe.

The Bolsonaro government is also watching from afar. Recognition of Guaidó remains, but there is pressure from some sectors, especially the military, to seek some sort of recomposition of the bilateral relationship.