Venezuela’s Election: Maduro Faces Toughest Race in a Decade

Venezuela’s socialist government, led by President Nicolás Maduro, faces a significant electoral challenge in the upcoming presidential election. A resurgent opposition and widespread economic woes are shaping the political landscape.

Venezuela’s self-described socialist government faces a severe electoral challenge in a presidential election for the first time in decades. President Nicolás Maduro, now in his 11th year in office, is being challenged by former diplomat Edmundo González Urrutia at the head of a resurgent opposition, as well as a field of eight other candidates. The official campaign period for the July 28 election kicked off Thursday.

Maduro, who has presided over an economic collapse that has seen millions of people emigrate, and his United Socialist Party of Venezuela have fended off challenges by barring rivals from elections and painting them as out-of-touch elitists in league with foreign powers. This time, he promised to let the Unitary Platform opposition coalition participate in the election in a deal that brought his government some relief from crippling economic sanctions imposed by the United States. That respite, however, was short-lived as the U.S. reimposed sanctions amid mounting government actions against the opposition, including blocking the candidacy of opposition powerhouse María Corina Machado.

María Corina Machado, a former lawmaker, emerged as an opposition star in 2023, filling the void left when a previous generation of opposition leaders went into exile. Her principled attacks on government corruption and mismanagement rallied millions of Venezuelans to vote for her in the opposition’s October primary. However, Maduro’s government declared the primary was against the law and opened criminal investigations against some of its organizers. Since then, it has issued warrants for several of Machado’s supporters and arrested some staff members, and the country’s top court affirmed a decision to keep her off the ballot.

Despite these setbacks, Machado continued her campaign, holding rallies across the country and turning the ban on her candidacy into a symbol of the loss of rights and humiliations many voters have felt for over a decade. She has thrown her support behind Edmundo González Urrutia, a former ambassador who’s never held public office, helping a fractious opposition unify behind him. They are campaigning together, promising an economy to lure back the millions of Venezuelans who have migrated since Maduro became president in 2013.

Maduro’s Declining Popularity

President Nicolás Maduro’s popularity has dwindled due to an economic crisis that resulted from a drop in oil prices, corruption, and government mismanagement. Maduro can still bank on a cadre of die-hard believers, known as Chavistas, including millions of public employees and others whose businesses or employment depend on the state. However, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela’s ability to use access to social programs to get people to the polls has diminished as the country’s economy has frayed.

Maduro is the heir to Hugo Chávez, a famous socialist who expanded Venezuela’s welfare state while locking horns with the United States. Sick with cancer, Chávez handpicked Maduro to act as interim president upon his death. He took on the role in March 2013, and the following month, he narrowly won the presidential election triggered by his mentor’s death. Maduro was re-elected in 2018 in a widely considered a sham contest. His government banned Venezuela’s most popular opposition parties and politicians from participating, and in turn, the opposition urged voters to boycott the election. That authoritarian tilt was part of the rationale the U.S. used to impose economic sanctions that crippled the country’s crucial oil industry.

Maduro held two events Thursday, including a march in Caracas, marking the official start of his campaign.

Challenges for Venezuelan Voters

More than 21 million Venezuelans are registered to vote. Still, the departure of over 7.7 million people due to the prolonged crisis — including about 4 million voters — is expected to reduce the number of potential voters to about 17 million. Voting is not mandatory and is done on electronic machines. Venezuelan law allows people to vote abroad, but only about 69,000 met the criteria to cast ballots at embassies or consulates during this election. There were costly and time-consuming government prerequisites to register, a lack of information, and mandatory proof of legal residency in a host country, which kept many migrants from registering to vote.

Venezuelans in the U.S. face an insurmountable obstacle: Consulates, where citizens abroad would typically cast their ballots, are closed because Caracas and Washington severed diplomatic relations after Maduro’s 2018 re-election.

Electoral Conditions and International Scrutiny

A more accessible and fair presidential election was possible last year when Maduro’s government agreed to work with the U.S.-backed Unitary Platform coalition to improve electoral conditions in October 2023. An accord on election conditions earned Maduro’s government broad relief from U.S. economic sanctions on its state-run oil, gas, and mining sectors. But hopes for a more level playing field began fading days later, when authorities said the opposition’s primary was against the law and later began issuing warrants and arresting human rights defenders, journalists, and opposition members.

A U.N.-backed panel investigating human rights violations in Venezuela has reported that the government has increased repression of critics and opponents ahead of the election, subjecting targets to detention, surveillance, threats, defamatory campaigns, and arbitrary criminal proceedings. The government has also used its control of media outlets, the country’s fuel supply, electric network, and other infrastructure to limit the reach of the Machado-González campaign.

The mounting actions against the opposition prompted the Biden administration earlier this year to end the sanctions relief it granted in October.

The opposition faces an uphill battle in uniting and mobilizing supporters, particularly in the face of government actions to stifle their efforts. Despite these challenges, the opposition’s determination to contest the election reflects the broader discontent and desire for change among many Venezuelans.

As the election date approaches, the international community will watch closely to see how the process unfolds and whether it marks a turning point for Venezuela. The stakes are high, not just for the candidates but also for the country’s future direction.

Also read: Electoral Agreement Highlights Venezuela’s Institutional Crisis

Venezuela’s upcoming presidential election is a test of political will and a significant moment in the nation’s history. With a faltering economy, widespread emigration, and deep political divides, the election results will have far-reaching implications for the country’s future. The contest between Maduro and González Urrutia, backed by a unified opposition, represents a critical juncture. Will Venezuela continue down its current path or pivot towards a new direction under fresh leadership? Only time will tell, but the importance of this election cannot be overstated.

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