The recent regional elections were billed as a test for the beginning of the end of a years-long political stalemate.
Two left-wing and three right-wing electoral alliances representing 42 political parties participated in Venezuela’s first regional elections in four years on Sunday night. Over 70,000 candidates registered for 3,000 municipal and governorship positions. There’s a reason why these elections were dubbed the #MegaElecciones2021 on Twitter.
At the end of the night, the Socialist Party-backed electoral alliance swept 22 of 25 governorships plus the mayorship of Caracas. Turnout was 41 percent, a significant drop from the 61 percent in the 2017 governorship elections and a dip from the 47 percent in the municipal elections of that same year. However, compared to the 43 percent turnout for the simultaneous Chilean congressional and presidential election, Venezuelans came out in large numbers for what are otherwise uneventful local contests.
Massive elections and Social Party hegemony are not new to Venezuela; however, these elections were the first in 15 years in which the EU sent observers. Coming on the heels of talks between the leftist Nicolas Maduro government and the opposition of Juan Guaido, these were also the first elections since 2018 with the participation of the right-wing opposition.
Should Sunday’s elections be declared by observers to be free and fair, they could mark the beginning of the end for the brutal, internationally coordinated sanctions against Venezuela.
Since 2019, Venezuelans technically have been living with two governments. The first is Maduro’s, who maintains control over the nation with the backing of state institutions and the armed forces. The second is the right-wing opposition. They back Guaido, who was proclaimed interim president by the 2015 National Assembly after disputed presidential elections. Subsequently, Guaido gained recognition from most Latin American countries, the EU, US, UK, and Canada.
Maduro has been accused of resorting to authoritarian tactics to maintain control. In the 2018 and 2020 elections for instance, watchdog organisations denounced Maduro’s use of the Supreme Court to disqualify opposition candidates. His use of mano dura (heavy-handed) repression against opposition protesters in 2014 morphed into police occupation of slums that once heavily supported the Bolivarian government.
Fortunes for Guaido have changed since his violent attempt to take power by storming the Carlota air base. His manoeuvre as interim president to seize Venezuelan state assets in the United States has been painted as open theft by Maduro supporters. The Government has successfully linked Guaido’s connection with the ongoing US-led blockade to Venezuela’s deteriorating humanitarian crisis and slow pandemic response.
The expiration of the 2015 National Assembly term and a pro-Maduro supermajority in the 2020 National Assembly have undermined Guaido’s position. Simply put, his term as a legislator has expired and he has been replaced. Earlier this year the EU revoked its recognition of the interim government.
In many ways, Guaido and his cohort have played the role of useful idiots for Maduro. Their open conspiracy with the United States to take power through extra-constitutional means has made them widely unpopular in a country where nationalism and anti-imperialism are hallmarks of political life. Guaido’s antics have given the government cover to push through unpopular measures like introducing Special Economic Zones and partially privatising the oil sector.
For Maduro, an opposition that is seen as orchestrated by the US is an opposition worth cultivating. In Sunday’s race, the government welcomed oppositionists from the right to participate. Yet it barred left-wing candidates like Eduardo Saman — who is critical of the turn to privatisation — from running and shut down progressive, grassroots media for the day.
A new chapter: The Mexico negotiations
From August to October 2021, negotiators from the Maduro government met with moderates from the Venezuelan opposition in Mexico in the third of such attempted talks. Supported by the US, EU, and Canada, these moderate opposition figures came to Mexico not as representatives of the so-called interim government of Juan Guaido, but as members of the Unitary Opposition Platform.
Increasing international isolation, a runaway pandemic, and a network of Western sanctions that hindered policy implementation were all important incentives for Maduro’s Socialist Party government to negotiate in good faith with the opposition. Despite Maduro’s resilience – he’s still in power despite coordinated sanctions, assassination attempts, and mercenary plots – a return to normalcy in Venezuela’s international relations remains the desired outcome.
The result of the Mexico talks was a partial agreement that saw the Maduro government free political prisoners and appoint a new National Electoral Council (CNE), which iincludes officials from the opposition. The talks also opened a pathway for Maduro to address the principle demand of the international community – free and fair elections that include the opposition.
Playing the strategic game, Maduro ended the Mexico talks prematurely in protest of the extradition of Venezuelan diplomat Alex Saab to the US. The level of noise from Miraflores rightly suggests Saab is important to Maduro.
However, the timing of Maduro's dissent – it occurred right after striking a deal for opposition participation in elections – indicates that Maduro’s objective after internationally certified elections is the easing of sanctions and coercive measures against Venezuela.
The coming thaw?
Venezuelan regional and municipal elections are typically not exciting. Yet these recent elections served, at least for the international community, as a barometer for democracy in Venezuela. The extra scrutiny will reveal whether Maduro’s government is willing to carry through with legitimate races and whether the right-wing opposition is prepared to concede defeat should they lose.
Maduro is methodically buying time. He is hoping that electoral wins by the left across Latin America, coupled with the possibility of EU recognition, could open a way back into the international mainstream and out of coordinated sanctions. Given that the US might find itself alone in its hardline Venezuela policy, it comes as no surprise that hawks like Elliott Abrams attempt to cast doubt on election observers.
Should observers find these elections to be free and fair, we can expect a thaw in relations between Venezuela and the EU. If so, this would poke a hole in the US-led sanction regime. Otherwise, we can expect another round of negotiations that could very well lead to nowhere as the scale of human misery in Venezuela worsens.
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