(Bloomberg) -- In a sharp reversal of strategy, Venezuela’s main opposition parties plan to compete in 2024 presidential elections no matter what conditions the government agrees to beforehand.
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Emboldened by this year’s gubernatorial victory in the Chavista stronghold of Barinas, a cattle-raising state in western Venezuela, opposition parties plans to unite behind a single leader, according to interviews with seven officials in the parties.
The opposition will elect its contender in a unified primary next year after whittling down a list of more than a dozen potential nominees including former National Assembly President Juan Guaido, who has argued that he is the legitimate leader of the country and gained recognition from dozens of foreign governments. The winner will take on the Socialist Party’s candidate in 2024 -- widely expected to be President Nicolas Maduro himself in a bid for a third, six-year term.
It marks a change from the previous strategy of boycotting elections, holding on-again, off-again negotiations with the government and attempting to orchestrate a military uprising. The new approach appears to put on the back burner US-supported negotiations that sought to obtain electoral guarantees, such as monitoring by international observers and for exiled and banned leaders to be allowed back to participate in politics.
“There is a political decision to participate,” said Omar Barboza, the executive secretary of the opposition coalition known as the Unitary Platform. “We believe that we represent a desire for change.”
About 78% of people said they would vote in the 2024 presidential elections, according to the latest survey from Caracas-based pollster Delphos. That compares with just 46% participation in the 2018 vote, the lowest turnout ever in a Venezuelan presidential election. The opposition boycotted that year.
“Today people want to actively participate in elections, they don’t want to leave that void to the government,” said Benigno Alarcon, director of political studies center at Andres Bello Catholic University in Caracas. “But for people to think it’s worth doing they need to feel that there’s a single opposition candidate and a real chance of winning.”
Talks between the opposition and government aimed at creating conditions for a free and fair election in 2024 have been stalled for a year after Maduro abandoned the process. A prisoner swap between the US and Venezuela this month has raised speculation that Maduro is set to return to the negotiating table, but no new meetings have been announced.
“We hope that we can return soon to the process of negotiations that allows for an agreement,” Guaido said in a press conference Tuesday. “We’re focused on our objective: The free and fair elections that they have owed use since 2018.”
Even unified, the opposition will face stiff challenges. In prior elections, Maduro’s government has taken advantage of its near total control of the nation’s media for campaign air time. On election day, it sets up check points near polling stations that reward government supporters with handouts, like bags of food, and serve as a not-so-subtle reminder that it’s watching who casts ballots. In other instances, the government has resorted to imprisoning potential contenders to cast them aside.
A group of European Union observers said regional elections last year were beset by cases of violence, abuses of state funds, and voter coercion. Guaido has been attacked three times in the past two weeks while touring the country.
In appearances on state TV, Maduro has repeatedly hinted at his openness to holding the election early. Messages to the Venezuela government seeking comment were not returned.
Spokespeople for the four main opposition parties did not respond to requests for comment. The Unitary Platform said in a statement Sunday it has approved the rules for the primary process, without disclosing them.
Guaido said Tuesday a proposal for the primary process will go through a consultation before being finalized. A date for the primary will be set in coming days, he said, without specifying when.
The closest the opposition has come to unseating the Socialist Party in nearly 25 years was after Hugo Chavez’s death in 2013 when Maduro defeated Henrique Capriles by only 200,000 votes. Since then, it has suffered from internal disputes, resulting in fractured support for various leaders.
Capriles, who received 49.1% of the vote a decade ago, has an approval rating of only 18%. The governor of Zulia state, Manuel Rosales, has the highest approval rating among opposition members at 26.4%, according to a survey carried out by Caracas-based Datanalisis in September. Maduro’s is 20.6%, compared to around 11% last year.
Still, the Barinas victory was seen as a bellwether for opposition leaders who are abandoning prior gambits, such as boycotting elections to protest unfair voting conditions. That strategy ended up handing over large swathes of local governments and parliament seats to Maduro loyalists, who mostly ran unopposed.
In January, the opposition gathered around a little-known member of the state legislative council, Sergio Garrido, who only became the candidate after the supreme court ordered a new election and two other candidates were disqualified. Garrido beat an established Socialist Party figure, Jorge Arreaza, a former foreign minister and Chavez’s son-in-law, taking 55% of the vote to Arreaza’s 41%.
What happened in Barinas is an example of unity, “and that is where our focus is,” Guaido said during a press conference on Sept. 27.
“We are going to participate in the election,” Guaido said. “And we are going to make it competitive because we are going to unify.”
(Adds Guaido comment in 9th and 14th paragraphs)
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