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After Electoral Boycott, Venezuela’s Opposition Faces a Challenging Road Ahead

On May 20, President Nicolas Maduro won re-election in a hastily arranged snap vote dubbed a sham by a large group of Venezuela’s democratic forces. The Lima Group, a coalition of 14 regional countries advocating for a resolution to Venezuela’s closing democratic space and collapsing economy, the United States and the European Union announced they did not recognize the legitimacy of the election, with some countries limiting their diplomatic relations with Venezuela in response. 

Maduro’s victory is hardly surprising – he has consolidated power and severely weakened democratic institutions since first elected in 2013. His United Socialist Party (PSUV) dominates the Supreme Justice Tribunal (TSJ) and National Electoral Council (CNE), as well as the National Constituent Assembly (ANC), a parallel national legislature voted into being last July through an illegal and fraudulent election. Maduro’s allies in the ANC have legitimized electoral processes deemed unfair by opposition forces in an effort to keep him in power, rendering elections neither free nor fair.

In January, the TSJ ruled it illegal for the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD), Venezuela’s main opposition coalition, to run a single candidate on behalf of all member parties. Maduro’s allies in the government have also persecuted political opponents; last year, the government barred popular opposition candidates from participating in the 2017 subnational elections. In response, the opposition called for a boycott of the presidential election, stating they would not support a process that was neither fair nor free. Former Governor Henri Falcón broke away from the MUD to run an independent campaign and signed the CNE’s electoral guarantees agreement, thereby accepting the government’s unfair election process as legitimate. Himself a one-time ally of Maduro’s predecessor Hugo Chávez, Falcón earned approximately 22 percent of the vote despite having no support from the opposition coalition. Following the election, Falcon announced he would not recognize the election results, thereby breaking the electoral agreement and echoing the MUD’s call for free and fair elections.

On Election Day, the PSUV set up “red points” near polling stations across the country, where citizens received either hard cash or food in exchange for their vote. Although voter mobilization points are legal in Venezuela under certain conditions, democratic actors denounced these points as a form of buying votes. For many citizens, selling one’s vote is a necessity, considering that food in Venezuela is incredibly scarce and the currency is so devalued that merchants weigh stacks of bills rather than count them all. Trading food for political support is a well-known PSUV strategy – government organized groups distribute subsidized food and domestic supplies to supporters in packages covered with images of Maduro and his predecessor Hugo Chavez.  In their minds, voting against Maduro could jeopardize access to these resources.

The election is unlikely to affect the political status quo. Maduro may have secured the presidency for another six years, but his regime is unlikely to survive much longer in its current state. Maduro must govern and repair his dangerous policies which have led to nearly bankrupting the national treasury, rampant hyperinflation, a severe health crisis and an ongoing wave of migration out of Venezuela. These policies are clearly unpopular, as this May saw the lowest turnout in any Venezuelan presidential election since 1958, even with the government’s official (though unverified and likely inflated) turnout rate of 46 percent. Maduro’s domestic support will continue to deteriorate amid Venezuela’s crumbling economy, declining social stability and citizen exodus.

How does Venezuela’s democracy recover? While international forces apply pressure on Nicolas Maduro, democratic actors in Venezuela need to rethink their strategy to fight further repression of political, social and civil rights and, at the same time, strengthen their fragmented movement to prevent the total collapse of Venezuela’s economy and the rule of law. Maduro lacks Hugo Chavez’s popularity and is facing an increasingly displeased populace, providing an opportunity for democratic leaders to reassert themselves by pressing for new free and fair elections with independent observers, under independent supervision, to open a path for Venezuelans to recover the freedom and prosperity that they have lost during the Chávez-Maduro era.