A prominent dissident is running in Venezuela's legislative elections as other opposition parties boycott. Over seven years in power, President Nicolas Maduro has demonstrated a knack for keeping his enemies divided.
Henrique Capriles has never been a magnetic political figure, but he was able to unite Venezuela's opposition Democratic Unity Roundtable around him for two presidential campaigns: first in 2012 against Hugo Chavez and again in 2013 against Nicolas Maduro, who took power after Chavez died. According to the official results, he lost both times, and retreated to the state of Miranda, where he was governor until 2017.
In 2014, mass protests broke out as an economic recession set in a year after Maduro came to power. Millions took to the streets after the Supreme Court revoked the National Assembly's power to legislate in 2017. Maduro was reelected in 2018 — though with the lowest voter turnout in the country's democratic history.
By the beginning of 2019, when the leader of the National Assembly, Juan Guaido, declared himself interim president of Venezuela, Capriles was all but forgotten internationally. More than 50 countries, including the United States, rallied around Guaido and recognized his claim to the presidency. Venezuela's army did not, however, and Guaido, too, has lost some of his influence.
And now Capriles is back. On September 5, the deadline to register as a candidate for the December 6 National Assembly elections, he gained the support of 277 opposition activists. The rest of the opposition, however, plans to boycott the vote, including Capriles' own party: the social democratic Primero Justicia (Justice First).
In a request for EU observers sent earlier in September, Guaido wrote that the election would not fulfill the minimum requirements for a fair and free vote. But Capriles is following a different logic: For him, the vote is the last chance to put political pressure on the government. With the help of Turkish mediators, he is reported to have asked the government for fairer conditions. "Maduro will promise him a lot but not fulfill his promises," said Sabine Kurtenbach, a fellow at the German Institute for Global and Area Studies in Hamburg who has conducted extensive research on Latin America. "That's what we saw in the 2018 election."
Kurtenbach is not surprised that Capriles, once a candidate who united the opposition, is now trying a different tactic. "Everyone in the opposition represents their own interests," she said. "There's always someone breaking off and going it alone." She said the opposition encompassed the full political spectrum: from social democrats such as Capriles and the Popular Will party co-founded by Guaido and Leopoldo Lopez to neoliberals. The opposition has no common program to offer voters, she said, apart from the idea that Maduro must be ousted.
And, even on this point, the various opposition parties disagree as to how. At the end of August, the founder of the economically liberal Come Venezuela party, Maria Corina Machado, accused Guaido of being too craven because he does not want foreign military intervention. Kurtenbach said Machado had done Maduro's work for him. "Talk of intervention just confirms what Maduro always says: that the opposition is manipulated from abroad and doesn't care about the Venezuelans," she said.
Opposition figures have suggested that Maduro set a "trap" when he recently pardoned 110 political prisoners. There are certainly holes in Maduro's narrative of "national reconciliation." For one thing, the government was, in fact, correcting a wrong that it had committed; for another, only 50 of the people pardoned were in custody — the rest were under investigation or had been released. The Caracas Chronicles newsportal reports that there are still 336 political prisoners in custody in Venezuela. So now the opposition has been further split: into those who were "pardoned" and those who were "not pardoned."
Kurtenbach doubts that the situation will improve so long as opposition parties, civil society groups and Chavez supporters who are dissatisfied with Maduro remain divided. She said there would only be change if the army were to stop supporting Maduro. But the opposition has been waiting for that for over seven years now.