Venezuelan Opposition Prepares for Legislative Elections

Hugo Pérez Hernáiz

Despite the arrest of prominent leaders, ongoing internal division, and continuing uncertainty about the date of Venezuela’s upcoming legislative elections, the opposition has been trying to organize its internal strategy.

On February 20—the day after the Mayor of metropolitan Caracas, Antonio Ledezma, was arrested on charges of plotting a coup against the Maduro government—Jesus Torrealba, secretary of the opposition umbrella platform Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (MUD), announced that the opposition would hold primaries on May 3 to choose its candidates for the Assembly elections. Following talks with the CNE, the date was pushed back to May 17.

The timing of the MUD’s announcement about primaries, coinciding with the crisis generated by the arrest of Ledezma, was criticized by radical opposition supporters, but it helped to emphasize the MUD’s willingness to stick to the electoral path despite what some consider a government crackdown on the opposition.

Thirty-five of a total of eighty-seven electoral circuits will hold primaries. The rest will have their candidates chosen through party negotiations inside the MUD.

After a March 2 meeting of all 29 parties belonging to the MUD—including the “la salida” parties (Voluntad Popular, Vente Venezuela, and Alianza Bravo Pueblo)—the organization announced that it had reached a consensus on the candidates that will go directly to the legislative contest, bypassing the primaries.

Prominent opposition legislators such as Julio Borges, Roberto Enríquez, Freddy Guevara, Delsa Solórzano, Henry Ramos Allup, and Enrique Márquez will by directly named as candidates for their electoral circuits. Maria Corina Machado—who was stripped of her legislative seat last year by the government’s majority in the Assembly—will again be candidate for the Chacao-Baruta-El Hatillo circuit of Miranda.

The outcome of the March 2 meeting made for an unexpected show of unity and consensus for the opposition. Several parties, including Henrique Capriles’ Primero Justicia, had expressed their disagreement before the meeting with choosing some of the candidates by consensus and said they preferred that primaries be held for all electoral circuits.

But deep fractures and problems also became evident after the March 2 announcements. Some sectors have since continued to ask for all candidates to be chosen by primaries. Also, jailed opposition leaders Ledezma and Leopoldo López asked to be included as candidates for the primaries. MUD secretary Torrealba quickly announced that the request would be granted. However it is unclear if Ledezma and López can actually stand for parliamentary elections. In the case of López, the Attorney General insists that he continues to be barred for elected posts by a controversial ruling of the General Comptroller’s office. Also, charges against Julio Borges that he plotted to bomb Caracas and overthrow the government and against María Corina Machado that she conspired to assassinate Maduro, could be used by the government to stop them from running as candidates.

On March 17 the MUD announced that it had registered the candidates to run for primaries at the CNE. According to the MUD’s electoral commission president José Luis Cartaya, the CNE had posed no objections at the registration by the MUD of several candidates whom are currently in jailed or have been recently released, including Enzo Scarano, Daniel Ceballos, and Salvatore Lucchesse. Carataya also declared that Leopoldo López and Antonio Ledezma could “run by consensus” but that it was unknown if the government would block them from being candidates.

The “la salida” faction leaders—Ledezma, Machado, and López—and their parties seem to be on board the electoral strategy for this year’s legislative contest, but many of their supporters have lingering doubts about an electoral solution. This could fuel abstention within the opposition ranks. The possibility of the government reacting to future protest with more repression could make sectors of the opposition again favor a non-electoral option like the 2014 La Salida movement.  

Also, there are renewed fears in some sectors of the opposition that a pro-government CNE could again resort to gerrymandering electoral circuits, as they claim was the case in the previous elections. Demographic changes could be used by the CNE as a reason for changes in some electoral circuits.  

And finally the opposition will certainly face the incumbent’s advantage that has become a constant in previous elections. Although not hegemonic, the government directly or indirectly controls an ever-increasing part of Venezuelan media.

The government can be expected to make full use of its media dominance to portray opposition candidates a “lackeys of the empire”. It is also possible that the government will continue its crackdown on the opposition, accusing its leadership of a variety of conspiracies against the government.

President Maduro has emphasized that he will no longer tolerate what he claims is a “double game” [juego de doble banda] played by the opposition leadership, by which he means leaders playing the electoral game while at the same time supposedly plotting coups against him. This suggests that even outward displays of electoral conformity by opposition leaders could be construed by the government as hiding conspiratorial motives.

Indeed the recent sanctions against several government officials announced by the Obama administration have served the Venezuelan government as a rallying point to stir nationalistic and anti-imperialistic sentiment that will be used for electoral purposes.

In a press release, the MUD stated its disagreement with the sanctions and declared that “Venezuela is not a threat to any country.” The MUD also expressed that it prefers “preventive actions that respect the methods, rules, and institutions of the international rule of law, instead of unilateral sanctions.” But the government has dismissed the opposition’s rejection of the sanctions as lukewarm and has instead asked all Venezuelans to show unflinching loyalty to Maduro in the face of what it portrays as a severe attack on the country.