The last major stronghold of Venezuelan democracy looked set to fall into the hands of the authoritarian government of Nicolás Maduro on Sunday as the country held elections for a new National Assembly.
The assembly, the Congress of Venezuela, has been chaired by opposition leader Juan Guaidó for two years.
The result of the vote is clear: Mr. Maduro has tilted playing field So far in his favor that his ruling Socialist Party (PSUV) is sure to become the dominant force in the enlarged 277-seat parliament, especially as the main opposition parties boycott the vote.
But the fallout from the election could reshape Venezuelan politics in the months to come: Mr Guaidó is among the non-voters, meaning he will lose the presidency of Congress, the basis of his claim to be the legitimate interim president from Venezuela. Once the new parliament is installed on January 5, its position will appear increasingly precarious.
The United States, the British and some Latin American countries say they will continue to recognize him as the legitimate leader of the country, arguing that Mr. Maduro stole power through a mock election in 2018. In their eyes, the Congress headed by Guaidó will remain the legitimate legislative body of the country. even after January 5 until new fair elections can take place.
However, the EU’s position can be more nuanced. Some European nations feel uncomfortable with the twisted sophistication required to justify support for Mr. Guaidó. The change in leadership at the White House on January 20 blurs matters even further. New US President Joe Biden must decide whether to stick with Mr. Guaidó, who clearly has failed in his campaign overthrow Mr. Maduro, or chart a new course for Washington’s policy in Venezuela.
Meanwhile, the Maduro government threatened to persecute opposition members once it took control of the National Assembly. The regime is likely to harass Mr. Guaidó himself, although he insists that he will remain in Caracas and will not be forced into exile.
“The regime’s threats are neither new nor empty of meaning,” the 37-year-old opposition leader said on Saturday at a press conference in Caracas. “But we cannot allow a dictatorship to normalize in Venezuela in the 21st century.”
Major opposition parties view Sunday’s vote as a sham and have urged supporters to stay home. The turnout is likely low and those who vote will generally support the Socialists.
“This is a historic moment. Finally, we will resume the assembly which is rightly ours, ”said Luis Aguilera, a 72-year-old retired construction worker, on Sunday, after voting at Liceo Andrés Bello, a school used as a voting center in the city center. Caracas.
“They tried everything to get rid of Maduro. They tried to assassinate him with bombs, they used the economic blockade against him, and he is still there, because he has the support of the people.
Marely Hernández, a student, after voting in the same place, said it didn’t matter who took control of the assembly.
“What matters is the quality of the people elected. We need good, smart people, because Venezuela faces so many issues – from inflation to food shortage and gas shortage. We have to start finding solutions. ”
The Socialists were in good spirits as the elections approached. Mr Maduro has casually offered to step down if the opposition wins – a measure of his confidence. On Saturday night he hosted a long TV show that aired on at least four national channels and clearly enjoyed the vote.
At a end-of-campaign rally in Caracas this week, the Financial Times saw thousands of young socialists gather in a cavernous gymnasium to hear their candidates berating the opposition and their American backers while trotting the well-worn slogans of the Bolivarian socialist revolution.
“Not only will we take over the National Assembly, but we will stay in power for another 20 years,” said a young activist, Yurelys, shouting to make her voice heard above the noise of reggaeton music and firecrackers.
In stark contrast to the optimistic mood of the Socialists, the Venezuelan opposition is messy. Some small opposition parties participate in the elections while others, including those from Mr. Guaidó’s bloc, are not. Some are holding a makeshift national referendum next week on Mr. Maduro’s reign. Others say it’s a waste of time. Extremists say there is no point in trying to negotiate with Mr Maduro as moderates say discussions are the only way to resolve Venezuela’s protracted political crisis.
“I have never seen the opposition as fractured as it is now,” said Luis Vicente León, director of Datanálisis, the country’s most trusted pollster. “Never!”
Mr León’s poll shows that Mr Guaidó remains the most popular politician in the country, but only fair. His approval rating has gone from over 60% when released in January 2019 to 30% now, not much above other opposition figures. Mr. Maduro’s approval rating is stable at around 14%.
Asked about their main concerns ahead of the vote, residents of La Pastora fled ideology and focused on their most immediate needs.
“We need gas, electricity, running water, gasoline and food,” said one woman. “Whoever gives us these five things gets my vote.”