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Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido during a meeting in Caracas, Venezuela Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido during a meeting with members of the opposition in Caracas, Venezuela, Dec. 18, 2019 (AP photo by Matias Delacroix).

Ahead of Elections, Venezuela’s Divided Opposition Is at a Dead End

Friday, Sept. 18, 2020

After a rare period of unity, Venezuela’s opposition recently splintered over a familiar issue: whether to contest an election.

A coalition of parties aligned with opposition leader Juan Guaido plans to boycott legislative elections that are scheduled for December, on the grounds that they will be rigged. Henrique Capriles, another prominent opposition figure, heads a much smaller faction that recently announced it will participate in the vote if electoral conditions are improved. That move could play into the hands of Venezuela’s repressive president, Nicolas Maduro, who is hoping to win international recognition of the election even though it will be neither free nor fair.

Capriles may ultimately abandon his plan to field candidates, as it hinges on Maduro delaying the vote, which the president has said is “impossible.” But regardless of whether Capriles and Guaido remain divided, the Dec. 6 polls represent a moment of truth for Venezuela’s beleaguered opposition. Guaido is still recognized by more than 50 countries as Venezuela’s legitimate interim president, but his campaign to oust Maduro has faltered. With the election looming, his movement is at risk of fading into irrelevance.

In supporting the elections, Capriles said earlier this month that he was “looking for a political event that mobilizes” the country. That will be a tall order, as Venezuelans have grown politically disenchanted under Maduro’s tight-fisted rule and with an economy that is in tatters. But the 48-year-old Capriles, a two-time former presidential candidate, is not short of ambition. In the 2012 election, he campaigned as a youthful, motorcycle-riding bachelor, unifying the opposition and posing a formidable election challenge to the ailing President Hugo Chavez. Capriles then nearly defeated Maduro the following year, in a vote that was triggered after Chavez’s death. In 2017, before he could attempt a third run for the presidency, Maduro banned him from public office over unproven corruption charges. In an ironic turnaround, Capriles is now negotiating with the Maduro regime about the terms of the upcoming elections and whether to participate.

Capriles’ approach is a bold one. Maduro has thoroughly rigged the electoral process in Venezuela to his benefit, and the opposition is not expected to retain its legislative majority in the National Assembly. But Capriles hopes “to follow the example of countries such as Belarus, where the opposition fielded candidates, the election was widely viewed as flawed, and the public rose in protest,” The Washington Post reported. The risk for Capriles is that “he ends up being seen to have legitimised a fraudulent election,” as The Economist put it.

Maduro’s goal in the election “is to create the illusion of giving the opposition a fair chance at political representation,” Raul Gallegos, a director at the political risk consultancy Control Risks, said in an email. “Maduro wants to regain two-thirds control of the National Assembly, and control all levers of power and still be able to claim his government is not a dictatorship.”

The most likely scenario for Capriles is that his gambit falls through. Capriles and his ally, opposition lawmaker Stalin Gonzalez, have suggested that the 260 candidates they have fielded will not run unless electoral conditions are improved. But so far, the concessions they have won from Maduro seem hollow. In late August, the regime pardoned more than 100 of its opponents, including 50 political prisoners and 60 dissidents who are in exile. But critics noted that there are hundreds more political prisoners in Venezuela, and that many of those pardoned had not even been charged with crimes in the first place.

Even if opposition lawmakers are elected in December, “they are unlikely to really have any power to enact political change or to stop Maduro’s plans in any way.”

Maduro has also invited the European Union and the United Nations to send election observers to Venezuela for the December vote. However, the EU has signaled that it would only send observers if the government postpones the vote date and agrees to more credible electoral reforms, while the U.N. has not responded to the invitation. Maduro has been unwilling to postpone the election, saying that it will be held on Dec. 6, “rain or shine.” This is the sticking point to any progress, as Capriles and Gonzalez have said that they will boycott the vote if the EU is not allowed to send election observers.

Capriles and Guaido may ultimately align on a boycott, but they are likely to remain divided on other issues, as tensions between them have bubbled to the surface recently. Capriles has expressed frustration at Guaido’s efforts to maintain a parallel, virtual presidency that lacks any real power. “We can’t keep playing at government on the internet,” he said earlier this month, in a rare public rebuke of Guaido. “Either you’re government, or you’re opposition. You can’t be both.”

In the 20 months since he declared himself, as the head of the National Assembly, to be Venezuela’s rightful interim president following disputed elections, Guaido has failed to oust Maduro or convince any of Venezuela’s pro-government institutions to take his side. His domestic approval rating has plummeted from 61 percent in early 2019 to 26 percent in August. The country’s grave economic and humanitarian crises are deepening, exacerbated by the pandemic and U.S. sanctions against the Maduro regime. And while Guaido still has support from much of the international community, enthusiasm for his movement has waned.

Capriles has also pointed to “a disconnect between the political class and the people.” Guaido could once call hundreds of thousands of demonstrators into the streets, but can only muster several dozen these days. Two surveys from July showed that “less than a third of Venezuelans believe the main opposition parties should call for a boycott of the December election,” according to The New York Times, another indication that Guaido is out of step with Venezuelans.

The opposition is now at risk of fading into obscurity after the December vote. Maduro “has the intent and capability to rig an election if necessary” Gallegos said, but “since most of the opposition will choose not to run in the election, the regime will likely regain control of the Assembly without the need to resort to fraud.” This presents a legitimacy crisis for Guaido, whose “claim to the interim presidency depends on his position as president of the National Assembly,” as David Smilde wrote for WPR earlier this year. In other words, Guaido’s claim to the interim presidency will effectively expire on Jan. 5, when the current legislature’s term ends. He has said he plans to extend the session of the outgoing National Assembly, but he lacks the constitutional grounds to do so.

By boycotting the next election, the opposition is essentially handing the National Assembly to Maduro. Some in the opposition will still participate in the vote, even if Capriles’ faction eventually decides to stay on the sidelines. But it will be a small number of politicians who will struggle to rally voters.

Instead, their participation will play into Maduro’s hands. Even if opposition lawmakers are elected, “they are unlikely to really have any power to enact political change or to stop Maduro’s plans in any way,” Gallegos said. “The regime will likely point to the opposition’s presence in congress to argue Venezuela is a democracy, even though it ceased being one a long time ago.”

Benjamin Wilhelm is WPR’s newsletter and engagement editor.