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Lesson from the Opposition Primaries in Venezuela

Being a politician affiliated with an opposition party in Venezuela can be dangerous these days, inviting government harassment, intimidation, and threats of jail. Identifying oneself as an opposition party member by voting in its primary can be almost as daunting, but remarkably some 600,000 Venezuelans did so on Sunday, May 17.

On that day, the Venezuelan coalition of opposition political parties known as the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD), organized primary elections in 33 electoral circuits (districts) across 12 states. A total of 40 opposition candidates were elected by popular vote to face the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) in the upcoming legislative elections expected this fall.

For its part, the PSUV and Venezuelan government officials are attempting to discredit these primaries by describing them as “undemocratic” and a “fraud,” pointing to the relatively low turnout and the fact that the primaries were only held in 33 of 87 circuits. But in reality, government limits on independent party access to media and funding for campaigns virtually ensure a low turnout and a small number of circuits where opposition primaries can take place. Voters themselves face possible retaliation from the government for their participation. However, despite all of this, 7.4 percent of the registered voters, or more than 600,000 Venezuelans participated. And unlike previous primaries, the MUD held these contests in challenging circuits with traditionally pro-government populations. Where primaries weren’t held, candidates were chosen by consensus.  

Next month, the PSUV will hold its primaries and will likely have a significant turnout with unlimited access to government accounts and official media. With such advantages, the PSUV can command the political battleground with campaign advertising and positive coverage. Moreover, vote totals will likely be boosted by the obligatory participation of state employees. On the other hand, a recent poll from local polling firm Datanalisis shows the official party with a 65 percent disapproval rating, as the country faces a 70 percent inflation rate, shortages in basic goods, and one of the highest violent crime rates in the world.

There are currently 77 political prisoners being held in the country, 33 of 78 opposition mayors are either jailed or facing legal charges with little to no evidence to back them up. This includes the recently jailed Mayor of Caracas, Antonio Ledezma and opposition leader, Leopoldo López, who has been in jail for more than a year, initially on charges of “murder” and “terrorism,” later changed to “instigating criminal gatherings” associated with last year’s protests against the government. Commercial media in Venezuela is severely constrained, leaving very few independent media outlets, most of which self-censor to protect themselves from government intervention. As a result, citizens are overwhelmed with propaganda and inaccurate news information. It is against this backdrop that the MUD organized its primaries.

Six months ago the coalition’s unity was in doubt, but this grouping of 29 political parties managed to put democratic freedoms ahead of differences to provide Venezuelan voters a choice. It’s an example for all political parties facing authoritarian governments throughout the world, and especially among neighbors in the region. While serious challenges await in the general parliamentary election, Venezuela’s MUD coalition deserves credit for what they accomplished last Sunday. 

Posted by

Juan Carlos Monje

Program Officer, Latin America and the Caribbean Division