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In Venezuela, a divided opposition weighs its chances

March 30, 2024

Is Venezuela's opposition dividing and conquering — or playing into the hands of President Nicolas Maduro?

Nicolas Maduro makes victory signs in the air
The Venezuelan opposition is aiming to unseat incumbent President Nicolas MaduroImage: Ariana Cubillos/AP/picture alliance

With literally one minute until the deadline, the opposition coalition in Venezuela managed to register a candidate for the presidential election on July 28. In January, the Supreme Court confirmed that Maria Corina Machado, the headlining candidate of the electoral alliance PUD (Plataforma Unitaria Democratica, or Democratic Unitary Platform), would be barred from running.

Then on Monday, the alliance was unable to register Machado's designated replacement, Corina Yoris, "due to technical reasons."

Opposition leader Maria Corina Machado speaks into a microphone as she stands next to Corina Yoris
Machado (left) was supposed to be replaced by Corina Yoris (right) as presidential candidateImage: Gaby Oraa/REUTERS

On Tuesday, after the deadline was extended, the PUD was finally able to register the former diplomat Edmundo Gonzalez Urrutia as its candidate to campaign against incumbent President Nicolas Maduro. Venezuela's highest electoral office, the CNE, also confirmed two other opposition candidates.

Who are the opposition candidates in Venezuela?

According to the PUD, Gonzalez's hasty registration should be recognized as a provisional candidacy, as the group still aims to get Machado on the ballot. This is legally possible until 10 days before the election, they say. 

This was also the plan when the PUD sought to nominate Corina Yoris as a replacement. The 80-year-old retired philosophy professor is regarded as eloquent but totally inexperienced politically. 

At least Gonzalez, the second replacement candidate, is a member of the leadership committee of MUD (Mesa de la Unidad Democratica, or Democratic Unity Roundtable), which is tied to the PUD. However, he is not well-known by the Venezuelan public. Following Gonzalez's registration, opposition leader Machado promised to keep fighting for her right to participate.

Three opposition candidates: Spreading risk or driving division? 

Just before the registration deadline passed, the former representative and ex-vice president of the electoral commission, Enrique Marquez, also registered as an independent opposition candidate. However, the registration of Manuel Rosales caused more uproar.

Rosales is the current governor of Zulia, Venezuela's most densely populated state. In 2006, he was the opposition coalition's presidential candidate and ran (unsuccessfully) against then-incumbent Hugo Chavez. Though Chavez died in 2013, his Socialist Unity Part (PSUV) remains in power — with Maduro holding the presidential reins.

Manuel Rosales walks as a crowd follows him
Maneul Rosales (center) has been accused of being an opposition politician in appearance only Image: ose I.B. Urrutia/Eyepix/aal/IMAGO

Rosales' party Un Nuevo Tiempo (A New Time) is part of the anti-Maduro PUD coalition and initially supported first Machado's and then Yoris' candidacies. Rosales claims he registered for the same simple reason as Gonzalez: to ensure that PUD would be able to participate in the election.

There was apparently no agreement backing this, however: Shortly after Rosales' registration was made public, opposition leader Machado accused him of treason. 

Accusations of a 'loyal opposition'

Machado's accusations reveal that she counts Rosales as a member of the so-called "loyal opposition," said Victor M. Mijares of the University of the Andes in Bogota, Colombia. The term is used to describe opposition forces whose non-confrontational positions lend the appearance of political diversity while not actually posing a threat to the regime. 

These forces "receive political advantages that take the form of access to public offices such as mayor or governor," said Mijares.

On Wednesday, Rosales strongly denied claims made on social media that his candidacy had been arranged in agreement with Nicolas Maduro. But whether by design or by chance, Rosales' candidacy is nevertheless in the interest of the government, said Günther Maihold from the Latin America Institute at Berlin's Free University.

"As a governor, he's actually not supposed to be allowed to run, but the electoral commission, which is controlled by the ruling party, allowed it in order to split the opposition," he said.

Strongest candidate has been sidelined

For her part, Machado is considered radical, even in opposition circles. It's potentially why the liberal right-wing politician remained in the shadows of more moderate, left-leaning political leaders such as Enrique Capriles, Leopoldo Lopez and Juan Guaido.

Maria Corina Machado gestures strongly while speaking into a microphone
Machado, an outspoken right-wing politician, has managed to unite much of the opposition behind herImage: Gabriela Oraa/AFP/Getty Images

However, by October 2023, Machado had definitively secured her position as opposition leader. In the PUD's primary elections, she received more than 90% of the more than 2 million votes cast — even though she had already been sentenced by government authorities to a 15-year ban on holding office. One of the accusations leveled against her was that she had been involved in a "corruption scheme" along with Guaido, the former Parliament president.

"This has significantly strengthened Machado's position," said Maihold. "Just last week I spoke with opposition members who really believe they have a chance to win the election with Machado — if the vote were to be free and democratic."

What are the opposition's election chances? 

Still, no one expects that to be the case. The rulers of the Socialist Unity Party and their allies really have no other choice than to prevent a democratic vote from taking place, said Mijares.

Juan Guaido yells into a megaphone and gestures during a demonstration
Opposition leader Juan Guaido fled to the US in 2023Image: Ariana Cubillos/AP/picture alliance

"Maduro's administration and his governing coalition are facing a dilemma in which ceding power is not a viable option, as this is considered to be a political and even existential risk," he said. The opposition has accused the regime of massive corruption and human rights abuses that would hardly be left unpunished were the country to be re-democratized.

Of all the stumbling blocks that the government is putting in the opposition's path, Maihold believes the exclusion of Machado is the crucial one. Maduro only has the backing of some 30% of Venezuelans, he explained, and these tend to be party members, members of the military and their relatives — in other words, voters who have directly benefited from his rule.

"The opposition's success largely depends on how many voters they can mobilize," said Maihold, adding that only a leader like Machado could presumably manage to unite a democratic majority behind them.

This article was originally written in German.

DW-Redakteur Jan D. Walter Kommentarbild App PROVISORISCH
Jan D. Walter Editor and reporter for national and international politics and member of DW's fact-checking team.