Facing elections in Venezuela’s new normal, opposition asks: Do we want in?

As Venezuelan politicians prepare for long-delayed gubernatorial elections, some opposition members have argued that their participation would validate the increasingly undemocratic government. But memories of a backfiring boycott in 2005 have hung over the decision.

Andres Martinez Casares/Reuters
Opposition supporters rally against Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro's government in Caracas, Venezuela, Aug. 12, 2017. The banners read 'For the democracy, peaceful protest.'

Since April, Venezuela’s opposition coalition seemed to be gaining the kind of support and momentum it was long criticized for lacking. Its calls for peaceful protests and boycotts were met by a broad, consistent turnout, and an unofficial referendum it organized in July led more than 7 million Venezuelans at home and abroad to condemn the increasingly authoritarian moves of President Nicolás Maduro’s government.

The coalition was making powerful promises, like plans to set up a parallel government if President Maduro moved forward with a July 30th vote to create a Constituent Assembly.

“We are not backing down because our problem isn’t the Constituent Assembly, it’s the dictatorship,” said Freddy Guevara, a top opposition politician in the National Assembly, in the lead-up to the vote. “What comes after…will not be easy for us.”

Mr. Guevara was right. Since representatives were elected to the Constitutional Assembly – a legislative superbody with powers to rewrite the Constitution and override institutions like the opposition-controlled National Assembly – the opposition’s momentum screeched to a halt. Street protests shrank and the opposition coalition faced a decision that both confused and frustrated citizens desperately seeking change: whether or not to participate in upcoming gubernatorial elections.

For some, participating in the elections was an implicit validation of a government bordering on dictatorship. For others, not participating spelled the very same thing, since it would rule out any chance of creating change through formal channels. And those abstract questions of how to challenge an increasingly powerful ruling party had a concrete deadline: Candidates had to sign up this week to run in October’s race – delayed since last December.

In the end, the largest parties within the opposition coalition decided to participate. But it raises questions about how best to pressure a government into negotiations or leadership change in an environment where the rules of the game are constantly changing. And their choice has left a powerful showing of public pressure via street protests in limbo. While the opposition seems to be making a bet on the possibility of peaceful political change, past missteps and growing national unrest are hanging over the decision. 

“Not participating in elections, as the opposition has done on previous occasions, serves only to hand power” to the ruling party, says Julia Buxton, a Venezuela expert at the Central European University.

Sitting the vote out wouldn’t provide The Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD), as the opposition coalition is known, “with any viable platform to push back on the government other than through street protests – which to date, have had minimal impact despite the death toll” of more than 100 people, she says.

History lessons

The opposition’s decision to participate in elections echoes back to 2005: the year the opposition decided to protest the parliamentary election, accusing then-President Hugo Chávez of moving the country toward dictatorship.

The boycott didn’t draw the hoped-for international backing, and supporters of Chávez easily won the majority of the National Assembly. As a result, Chávez’s Bolivarian Revolution was entrenched, with sympathetic state appointments and legislation key to Chávez’s social project rubber-stamped by parliament.

In the years that followed, the opposition seemed to take that 2005 lesson to heart, throwing themselves into elections, from the near-miss by Henrique Capriles in his presidential bid against Maduro in 2013 to the opposition’s 2015 parliamentary victory. But when efforts to launch a recall referendum against Maduro last year were rejected, and the gubernatorial elections appeared to be perpetually delayed, the coalition shifted tack, moving toward calls for pressure on the government from the streets via large-scale protests.

“It’s our duty to participate,” said opposition party leader Andres Velasquez last week at a press conference, referring to the upcoming elections. “By not doing so, we would be validating the dictatorship,” he argued.

Despite the opposition’s rough experience boycotting elections in the past, “there are plenty of people who aren’t persuaded” that participating in the elections is the correct choice, says Elsa Cardozo, a political analyst in Caracas. Amid severe shortages, “It’s not easy to understand for someone who is hungry or looking for meds or working like crazy that running a campaign” is going to change the immediate hardships in Venezuela, she says. “And the opposition hasn’t done a great job of convincing people who risked their lives protesting that it’s the correct decision.”

There are also members of MUD who have argued against the election route. “It is inconceivable that democratic Venezuelan forces are contemplating a regional election process without removing the dictatorship from power,” opposition politician María Corina Machado said earlier this month. 

The opposition’s inability to convince supporters or those who no longer stand with the government goes to the heart of the coalition’s challenges, says Dr. Buxton.

“What is happening in Venezuela is complex and unique, and this in turn shapes the options and constraints facing the opposition,” she says. “The opposition has had a very comfortable and relatively easy ride with the international media and it has had access to foreign governments and influential external actors.

“What it has not been able to do is build and consolidate popular support at home,” she adds. “Despite the catastrophic situation in the domestic economy and evident disenchantment with Maduro, the opposition are still not widely popular.”

‘A visible opportunity’

Some see the opposition’s decision to participate in elections as a risky bet. “Not only are they going to be trying to participate in a process where the rules of the game are constantly changed [by the government], but they’ve lost credibility with the people,” says Carlos Luna, director of the school for political studies at the Central University of Venezuela. “No one negotiates if they have the power to maintain control, and the pressure from the streets and the international attention that was drawing are needed to [create] change.”

Already, the government has disqualified MUD candidates in seven states from participating in the October vote, five of which had landslide opposition victories in 2015 elections. The government has vowed to ban any opposition candidate that played a part in calling for protests over the past four months, and has called for a tribunal-style truth commission. Two opposition politicians were taken from their homes earlier this month and put in prison, sending a chilling message to candidates running for office.

“If you think, embittered citizens sitting at home, that you are now going to go to write yourself in after you made calls to set Venezuela on fire and traveled the world calling for a Venezuelan invasion, you’re mistaken,” top government party official Diosdado Cabello said on television this month, alluding to frequent accusations made by ruling-party members that the opposition is working with foreign powers to overthrow the government and wreck the economy.

But the opposition needs to look beyond the obstacles thrown in their path by the government, says Dr. Cardozo.

“This moment is a visible opportunity to unify the opposition’s message and amplify its reach” to parts of Venezuelan society that haven’t traditionally supported it, like former Chavistas unhappy with the Maduro administration, she says.

“If they don’t take advantage of [ex-government supporters] through electoral channels, then what else is there?”

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