Opposition Mostly Boycotts Local Vote, Enters Talks on Electoral Conditions

While the largest parties in the Venezuelan opposition are boycotting local elections, the opposition coalition has announced it will enter a new round of mediated talks to secure free and fair conditions for 2018 presidential elections.  Whether the government will meet these demands remains to be seen.

On November 9, National Assembly President Julio Borges and Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Luis Florido issued a statement on behalf of the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) coalition, in which they stated that the bloc would enter into the third attempt at talks this year. According to the statement, the talks will take place once more in the Dominican Republic, and the opposition has selected the governments of Chile, Mexico and Paraguay to serve as facilitators. Venezuela’s government will select its own three countries to accompany the process as well.

Unlike the previous two rounds of talks, which involved more ambitious agendas on matters like freeing the reported 380 political prisoners in the country, dismantling the National Constituent Assembly, and  addressing the humanitarian crisis, this latest push has one main objective. In Borges’ words, the goal of these talks is to “achieve optimal conditions to go to a clean and transparent presidential election.”

While the opposition’s statement did not specify a date for talks, Information Minister Jorge Rodriguez tweeted that they would occur on November 15.

MUD Divisions Front and Center

No sooner was the announcement made than various opposition figures began to criticize it publicly. The most vocal of these has been Maria Corina Machado, though she has been joined by figures such as Andres Velasquez and Antonio Ledezma.  Such criticism appears to contradict Florido’s assurances to reporters that the initiative was supported by 104 of the opposition’s 109 legislators, including members of Machado’s Vente Venezuela party.

This apparent division comes on top of the MUD’s recent internal split over whether or not to participate in December 10 local elections.  The decision from the largest of the MUD’s political parties (Voluntad Popular, Primero Justicia, and Accion Democratica) and some smaller ones not to participate, even as a handful of regional parties and local opposition figures will, has led to highly public squabbling.

On November 7, Voluntad Popular and Primero Justicia  issued a joint statement in which they attacked Manuel Rosales for his “baseness” in deciding to run again for governor of Zulia state, a seat that Juan Pablo Guanipa won on October 15 but was stripped of following his refusal to swear in before the ANC. In the statement, VP and PJ directly accuse Rosales of “playing the government’s game,” a reference to the fact that the Supreme Court lifted his ban from holding office very recently.

From the other side, MUD elements that support electoral participation, like Rosales and Henri Falcon of Avanzada Progresista, have defended their decision. Rosales, for his part, claims that electoral authorities have met certain opposition demands, and Falcon has criticized the larger parties’ rejection of local elections while participating in the presidential race as “inconsistencies of some sectors that, in an irresponsible way, generates despair in Venezuelans.” Others like the recently-released Yon Goicoechea, who left Voluntad Popular to run as mayor of El Hatillo as Avanzada Progresista’s candidate, have echoed these sentiments.

Underlining this tension within the MUD is the fact that its members appear to be jockeying for nomination as the opposition presidential candidate. While presidential elections are due in late 2018, many believe that the government is likely to move them up to early in the year, perhaps as soon as March.  Falcon is assumed to be setting himself up as a candidate in the MUD’s primaries, and Acción Democrática’s Henry Ramos Allup will likely run as well.

Government Seeks to Strengthen its Hand

Amidst opposition conflict, the Maduro government is moving to isolate any perceived threats. The Supreme Court’s November 3 decision to strip Voluntad Popular’s Freddy Guevara of his congressional immunity so he could be tried for instigating violence—which has led him to seek refuge in the Chilean ambassador’s residence—is one example.

Another is the fact that conditions for the December 10 election will be carried out under flawed conditions, similar to the gubernatorial elections on October 15. As the Venezuelan Electoral Observatory (OEV) has noted in a statement, the December 10 vote was “decreed” by the Constituent Assembly, and the date was declared “arbitrarily” with no regard for the time needed to prepare the processes needed for the vote. Additionally, the OEV notes that the vote does not include elections for municipal council seats (consejales), a move which may be an attempt to safeguard against opposition control of key localities.

The final, and perhaps clearest, example of the government’s efforts to consolidate its hold on power is the Constituent Assembly’s November 8 passage of the “Law against Hate, for Peaceful Coexistence and Tolerance.” The law, which gives the government a basis to shut down media outlets for publishing or sharing on social media messages deemed as instigating violence or hate, also clearly targets the opposition’s political activities. Article 11 of the law establishes that political parties and organizations whose “declarations of principles, constitutive acts, action programs, statutes or activities” are deemed to “be based upon or promote” fascism, intolerance, or hatred along various racial, ethnic or nationality lines will have their license with electoral authorities revoked. The broad language of what constitutes  such hatred makes clear that the law can be used as a cudgel against opposition parties the government views as a threat.

Amid this heightened crackdown, there have been few signs that the Venezuelan government is willing to grant the concessions the opposition is seeking in talks. In fact, on November 8 Maduro asserted that he would not allow a change in the makeup of the National Electoral Council (CNE), including its president Tibisay Lucena. Referring to the opposition, Maduro announced: “I want them to know[…] it will be the same voting machines, the same CNE, the same Tibisay Lucena who announces who wins on December 10, and the same Tibisay Lucena who announces the new president in 2018.”

While the October 15 governors’ elections left the Maduro government strengthened, a looming default threatens the consolidation of these gains. President Nicolas Maduro is attempting to negotiate with private creditors to restructure more than $50 billion in bonds owed to them, a push to try to soften U.S. debt sanctions, or laying the groundwork for blaming an inevitable default on the sanctions. Whatever the government’s intentions, the effort—and the fact that the International Swaps and Derivatives Association has just asserted that PDVSA has entered into a “failure to pay credit event”—has highlighted its vulnerability and underlined its deepening reliance on Russian and Chinese loans in order to stay afloat.

There is one way that the looming debt crisis could facilitate dialogue. Last week the US Treasury said it could issue licenses for new bonds if they were approved by Venezuela’s National Assembly. This could increase the Maduro government’s interest in negotiating with the opposition.