A divided Venezuelan opposition found itself Monday on familiar territory, having lost an overwhelming majority of races disputed in a regional election a day earlier. But the divisions over how to move forward from their expected defeat and achieve their goal of knocking off President Nicolás Maduro have never been so evident.
The disagreements even extend to the act of voting itself, with one of its most recognizable leaders skipping the polls Sunday when more than 3,000 offices, including posts for majors and governors, were contested in the troubled South American country. The opposition parties ultimately took home three gubernatorial races, but working together, they had once won double that number.
“Today, a new phase must be opened in the work for reconstruction, reunification (of) the democratic alternative in Venezuela, strengthening and clarifying the objectives that have brought us together all these years and assuming the responsibilities that must be assumed at this time,” Juan Guaidó, leader of the U.S.-backed opposition faction, told reporters. “This is not the time to fight between parties, it is not the time for fights between egos of political leaders, it is time for reflection, of unity and work for Venezuelans.”
Guaidó, like millions of other Venezuelans, did not vote in the regional contests. The National Electoral Council said that about 42.3%, or roughly 8.15 million, of the country’s 21 million registered voters cast ballots.
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Sunday marked the return of major opposition parties to electoral contests, which they had boycotted since 2017, arguing that the country lacks conditions for fair and free elections — a message that Guaidó repeated Monday. Those major agreed to participate in elections as part of now-suspended negotiations with Maduro’s government.
The dialogue between Maduro and his adversaries also led to the presence of more than 130 international observers, mostly from the European Union, during the election. They fanned across the country to watch electoral conditions such as fairness, media access, campaign activities and disqualification of candidates.
Hospital worker Pedro Martinez, 56, said he understood why few people were in line at the polling center in an eastern Caracas neighborhood that typically votes against Maduro and his allies: Opposition leaders “fight amongst themselves.”
“That division in the opposition leads to few people (voting),” Martinez said. “The opposition has to work very hard to gain people’s trust.”
Results showed pro-government candidate Carmen Meléndez, a former defense minister, as the winner of the race for mayor of Caracas, the capital.
In the neighboring state of Miranda, which is of high strategic value for the opposition, pro-government governor Héctor Rodríguez was re-elected with more than 396,000 votes. That’s about 60,600 more than his closest contender, opposition candidate David Uzcategui. The sum of the votes among candidates other than the official alliance exceeded the votes in favor of Rodríguez, a close collaborator of Maduro.
Opposition candidates were elected governors in the central state of Cojedes, the insular state of Nueva Esparta and Zulia. At its best, participating as a bloc, the opposition won six governorships and 76 mayoralties in 2008 and 2013, respectively.
“The electoral strategy is now more limited for the opposition,” said Jacqueline Mazza, senior adjunct professor of Latin American studies at Johns Hopkins University. “I think the question for the opposition now, is that, under the current conditions coming back after having boycotted two of them, what are they going to do in two years? Because they cannot present themselves under the same lack of minimum conditions. ”
The regional contests normally don’t attract much attention beyond the country’s borders, but Sunday was different because of the steps taken by Maduro’s regime and his adversaries leading up to the election.
The National Assembly, with a pro-Maduro majority, in May appointed two well-known opponents as members of the electoral council’s leadership, including an activist who was imprisoned over accusations of participating in actions to destabilize the government. It is the first time since 2005 the Venezuelan opposition has more than one member on the board of the five-person electoral body.
In August, representatives of Maduro’s government and Guaidó allies began a formal dialogue, guided by Norwegian diplomats and hosted by Mexico, to find a common path out of their country’s political standoff. By the end of that month, the opposition’s decision to participate in the election was announced. Maduro’s representatives for months had also had behind-the-scenes talks with allies of former opposition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles.
The EU, motivated by the talks in Mexico, accepted the invitation of Venezuelan officials to send election observers. But those talks were suspended last month following the extradition to the U.S. of a key Maduro ally.
The European Union observers are expected to release a preliminary report Tuesday and an in-depth look next year.
Maduro, after preliminary results were released, called on winners and losers to participate in “political dialogue.” But hours earlier, in remarks to reporters, Maduro said the formal dialogue with the opposition cannot resume at the moment. He argued that he U.S. government “stabbed in the back the dialogue.”
The U.S. has imposed economic sanctions on Venezuela’s government, Maduro and some of his allies, including Saab, to deprive Maduro’s government of its main sources of income.
“The United States supports the people of Venezuela in their desire for a peaceful restoration of democracy through free and fair elections, with full respect for freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement Monday. “... We continue to support Venezuelan-led negotiations to restore the democracy Venezuelans deserve and to alleviate the suffering brought upon them by Maduro and his enablers.”