Venezuela’s ruling party claimed sweeping victories in the country’s Nov. 21 local elections, in which voters cast ballots for candidates in 3,000 local offices, including mayors, municipal councils and 23 state governors. What were the most important developments from the election, and how significant was the participation of the main opposition parties—their first since 2018—in the race? What do the results mean for Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s government, as well as for the opposition, and which faction has emerged stronger from the vote? How free and fair did the election appear to be, and what role did European Union observers, who were in Venezuela for the first time in 15 years, play?
Michael Shifter, president of Inter-American Dialogue: “The most important feature of Venezuela’s local and regional elections was the participation of the country’s opposition. The decision to compete was difficult, and not all opposition leaders embraced it, but the alternative—to boycott the rigged vote—had been followed in past elections, with little to show for it. To do so this time would have taken the struggling and divided opposition out of the political game in Venezuela. For nearly three years, the opposition pursued a fruitless strategy seeking regime breakdown and a quick democratic transition. A shift toward a more gradual approach was needed. Its leaders—many persecuted, jailed and forced into exile—had become increasingly removed from Venezuelan society and lost considerable popular support. The results were not surprising. Apart from predictably high abstention, the governing PSUV, which presided over a patently unfair vote, won resoundingly, with the opposition faring poorly, capturing only three of 23 governorships (the opposition performed much better in mayoral races). As expected, President Nicolás Maduro, seeking a measure of international legitimacy, celebrated the process and result. But there is no doubt that Venezuelans overwhelmingly reject his misrule, which has caused so much misery, and that if the election were even remotely fair—and the opposition less fractured—he would have suffered a colossal loss. The question is whether the opposition will now regroup and move toward greater unity, reconnect with a desperate population understandably distrustful of politics and pursue successful negotiations with the regime focused on the 2024 presidential election.”
Vanessa Neumann, CEO of Asymmetrica and former Juan Guaidó-appointed Venezuelan ambassador to the United Kingdom: “If there were a tagline for Venezuela’s farce of an electoral show, it would have to be Chronicle of a Death Foretold: the death of hope of Venezuelans that they have an electoral exit from this brutal dictatorship, and the death of the G4 parties that formed the coalition around Juan Guaidó. To be fair, the opposition never had a chance, but the Europeans wanted it to participate, and the opposition does need to lay the groundwork for the electoral mechanisms that will one day hopefully be needed—perhaps even in 2024. Despite the dictatorship’s rampant rigging, which we all expected, the opposition had plenty of failures that don’t inspire confidence in their future. First, it had no common goals and objectives, other than to take posts away from the Chavistas. They never defined why people should vote for them and what they’re offering. Second, they were completely disunited, without so much as a family photo to put faces to the movement. Third, the candidates did not reflect the electorate: in a country where women suffer the worst horrors every day, even The Washington Post reported extensively on the opposition’s blatant misogyny. There is plenty of female political talent, but the G4 system keeps them from the top. The United States and a few others such as the United Kingdom will still likely support Guaidó. However, Guaidó’s statement that the opposition needs to regroup and learn from its mistakes doesn’t even rise to the level of magical realism. As he enters the fourth year of his mandate, during which time the dictatorship has only strengthened, just now the opposition is now going to learn how to connect with an electorate and formulate a strategy?”
Julia Buxton, British Academy Global Professor at the University of Manchester: “The most surprising aspect of the election was the hastiness of U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s statement. It might be hoped that after years of pre-emptive interventions and deep bilateral freeze, there might be some recognition by the U.S. government of the positive gains from primus inter pares. In an ‘ordinary’ political context, the regional and municipal elections would have been a minor political affair. But the conduct of these elections and the results are a measure for many things—not just vital domestic aspects such as political party popularity, the legitimacy of political actors or the capacity of Venezuela’s electoral administration to oversee a clean, transparent process—at least on the day. They are also a determinant of next steps in the crippling U.S. sanctions regime, the volume and velocity of Venezuelans exiting the country and progress in dialogue to address urgent humanitarian issues. The actual results were predictable—a routine PSUV sweeping of the board by default of multiple opposition failings and obstacles. This is the story of the last two decades. Breaking this cycle required a calm response from external interlocutors. Countries engaged in supporting dialogue have E.U. and other election observation to draw on. This information allows common understanding and benchmarks to be established, in turn advancing critical issues such as the lifting of sanctions. The E.U. statement is forward-looking, understanding of carrots and sticks. Unfortunately, the United States seems to have torpedoed space for any constructive steps that this might have allowed. That is also the story of the last two decades.”
David Smilde, senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America and professor of sociology at Tulane University: “Despite efforts to discourage the vote by hardliners on both sides, 42 percent of eligible Venezuelans turned out to vote in the regional elections—the figure is closer to 50 percent if you take into account the four million or more registered voters who are abroad but unable to vote. The results reveal Venezuela’s crisis of democratic representation. Despite its controlling every branch of the government, harassment of opposition politicians, domination of media and instrumentalization of food and other basic necessities, the Socialist Party received the lowest vote total in its history. Most electors voted for gubernatorial candidates opposing the Maduro government, yet opposition forces only came away with three of 23 governorships because they divided their vote. If they had unified candidacies, they could have won the majority of gubernatorial contests—between 12 and 15. Until the Venezuelan opposition develops mechanisms to aggregate preferences and resolve conflict, this sad scene will be repeated indefinitely. The opposition needs to develop institutions that can draw in their own fringes on the left and right and unify candidacies, giving preference to candidates who actually have some organic link to the populations they want to elect them, preferably through primaries. This seems like a tall order, but they have done it before, for example in the 2015 legislative elections. The opposition’s current chaos is exacerbated by an interim government out of sync with the larger opposition and which prioritizes its own self-preservation over unification of the movement.”