Presidential elections in Venezuela: Less free than ever

Ilustration made by Connectas. Used with permission.

This article was written by Cristian Ascencio and published in CONNECTAS on March 20, 2024. An edited version is republished in Global Voices under a media partnership. 

The president of Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro, does not like to compete. When he sees an electoral threat, he imposes sanctions or new rules on its adversaries. He doesn't let go of the ball of power. It even seems like he would rather puncture it than risk losing the match.

Faced with this scenario, there is an opposition that has historically struggled uniting and standing up to the president who was elected for the first time in 2013, and is a presidential candidate for the third consecutive time. But last year a turning point seemed to come with the results of the primaries elections of the Unitary Platform of Venezuela, which brings together opposition parties: María Corina Machado, a conservative leader and one of the most radical anti-Chavistas, obtained 92 percent of the votes in the primaries (just over three million votes), in historic elections due to their high participation.

The hope did not last long,  in the face of the reaction of two entities controlled by Chavismo, like all the state powers in the country. Not only did the National Electoral Council ignore the results of the primaries, but the Supreme Court confirmed Machado's disqualification from running for public office for 15 years, as she is accused of supporting sanctions against Venezuela and — supposedly — having been part of the ‘interim presidency’ by Juan Guaidó, during the 2019 presidential crisis.

This made it clear that the Maduro regime did not mind throwing away the progress it had made with the United States through the recent Barbados agreements in negotiations with the opposition. In them, the United States demanded, among other things, guarantees for free elections.

On March 25, the deadline to register candidates expired, and the Maduro government did not allow the registration of Corina Yoris, the academic chosen by María Corina Machado to assume her candidacy to face her disqualification. That is to say: these presidential elections will be the first to be held in Venezuela without an opposition candidate elected in a primary vote almost since the beginning of Chavismo.

Read more: Online attacks on presidential candidates in Venezuela have a distinct gendered angle, study shows

In turn, Chavismo clings to power with other strategies: it imposes a very tight electoral calendar to leave its opponents less time for action (the elections were scheduled for July 28, and not for December, the traditional date of the presidential elections), creates obstacles not raised in the law to hinder the participation of the opposition in the elections, and hinders the actions of international organizations. For example, a month ago Maduro's government expelled the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights from Venezuela.

On July 28, Venezuela will hold presidential elections. Is its transparency guaranteed? #OppenheimerPresents, Sundays at 9 p.m. Miami time. @oppenheimera — CNN en Español (@CNNEE) March 17, 2024

Eugenio Martínez, Venezuelan journalist, expert on elections and director of, explains that “the cost of leaving power for Maduro is very high, while the cost of remaining is very low… being very pragmatic, the Venezuelan government has learned to live with international sanctions.

Javier Corrales, professor of political science, mentions a historical example in Latin America similar to the current electoral crisis. In 1973 the Argentine military junta was willing to allow democratic elections, but on the condition that General Juan Domingo Perón could not run. Then the general decided to support Héctor Cámpora and in fact, the motto of that campaign was “Cámpora to the government, Perón to power.”

And they actually won and the replacement was only two months in office. He called for new elections, where this time Perón was able to register, and of course triumphed.

And what did María Corina Machado say? On the night of March 17, she stated on social media that the regime, by disqualifying her, wants, as it has already done, to compete against false opposition candidates. “This reaction is a sign of weakness… They lost their social base and their blackmail mechanisms no longer work,” she stressed. “They are not going to remove us from this electoral route… a hand won is not negotiated,” she said almost at the end of the video, a few days before it was known that they would not allow Yoris’ registration.

The prohibition of the registration of María Corina Machado and Corina Yoris has generated rejection even from those who were previously almost unconditional allies of the Maduro government: the president of Brazil, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, described the disqualification as an action “without legal or political explanation,” the president of France, Emmanuel Macron, “firmly condemned the exclusion of a serious and credible candidate” and urged that the candidate be restored to the possibility of participating in the elections, and the president of Colombia, Gustavo Petro, affirmed that the impediments to the registration of the candidacies of opposition figures are “undoubtedly an antidemocratic coup.”

There are more than 1,400 disqualified citizens from running for elections in Venezuela, including Freddy Superlano, suspended while the votes were still being counted in the state of Barinas, where he was projected to win the elections for governor. There is also Henrique Capriles, who obtained 49 percent of the votes in the 2013 presidential election. In 2017, a year before the new presidential election, he was disqualified from holding public office for 15 years, just like María Corina Machado.

According to Luis Salamanca, PhD in political science, surveys show that 80 percent of the electorate wants a change of regime. “So, in order not to miss that opportunity, the opposition must think of something. Maduro is not a good candidate, he is defeatable, due to all the dead weight of these terrible years of social, economic and humanitarian crises,” Salamanca explains.

Chavismo already has a long history of electoral manipulation. In 2015 the Democratic Unity Roundtable obtained the majority in parliament. But the regime put all kinds of obstacles in place and finally the Supreme Court declared it the majority unconstitutional in 2019. That same year the opposition took that big false step that was the proclamation of Juan Guaidó as interim president.

#FindOut Venezuelans in Argentina go to the headquarters of the Venezuelan embassy in that country to try to register or update their data in the Electoral Registry, with the intention of being able to vote in the presidential elections on #28Jul — TalCual (@DiarioTalCual) March 18, 2024

On the other hand, many opponents do not stop regretting the decision not to participate in the last elections that Nicolás Maduro won in 2018, with 67.8 percent of the votes, according to the National Electoral Council. That time more than 60 countries did not recognize the votes as valid. It didn't matter much.

With Chavismo accustomed to international condemnations and sanctions, the question is what factors could force Maduro to hand over power, just as other dictatorships did in Latin America in the last century. Possibly the president and those close to him would seek to guarantee some degree of immunity to accept that scenario. And there are more contrasts: Maduro, unlike the military of the 20th century, feels supported by extracontinental powers such as Russia and China, which have been characterized by supporting authoritarian regimes around the world.

The latter complicates the picture even more, because, as the journalist and electoral analyst Eugenio Martínez says, things will only change in Venezuela if national and international actions generate a break in the ruling coalition, leading to a negotiation process in which “the cost [for Chavismo] of leaving power decreases significantly, while the cost of remaining in power increases.”

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