It’s not an easy decision; I understand. The government of President Nicolás Maduro—including the electoral commission—has done everything possible to divide, attack and disqualify the opposition, not only creating an unfair playing field for the unconstitutional May 20 presidential elections but out-and-out stealing them without any attempt to hide its efforts. Not only is it electoral theft, it’s in-your-face, “Screw you, international community, we’re stealing this election. What you going to do about it?”
But despite having its leading candidates arbitrarily barred from running and its established parties disqualified from competing, the opposition should cobble together a new coalition to appoint a non-disqualified candidate—even if he or she is a milquetoast—or back another candidate. Yes, by participating the opposition risks granting legitimacy to a sham election. But everyone knows it’s a sham election, and participating won’t change the views of the EU, the United States, serious neighbors, and the United Nations—which refused to send observers to the election, citing, correctly, that the conditions are not in place for a democratic election.
Still, the opposition should suck it up and participate. Here are four reasons why:
- Voters deserve a choice. Sure, the pre-electoral terrain has been cynically tilted—if not overturned—in favor of the government and no one has any doubt that the government will game the tabulations to ensure a solid win. But with Maduro’s popularity at less than 20% and 90% of Venezuelans believing the country is on the wrong path, Venezuelan citizens deserve the right to express themselves. Not going to the polls—as the opposition has urged—is not a democratic option. The opposition needs to provide a voting option to voters, to challenge the absolute power of Maduro and his machine, so that citizens feel they too have a voice against it. Providing that option, even if it is a moot one for now, is what democrats do. And it’s what the opposition needs to do if it wants to maintain itself in the collective imagination of Venezuelan citizens hoping for a democratic future, especially when 69% of Venezuelan voters said in a recent poll that they intended to vote.
- Elections provide a convening moment to highlight democratic abuses and rally both domestic and international groups. Since once-fierce opposition protests ran out of steam last year, the opposition—as it has for years—is struggling to re-group and find a foothold for its cause. Participating in and contesting the elections can provide that opportunity. For international groups, the opposition’s legitimate grievances of having participated in an event that was rigged and stolen will also provide a much-needed point of action. Because, let’s be honest, the international community has already stated its position on these elections—declaring that they are not legitimate and a priori declaring their intent not to recognize them. The international community tried this technique before, in the buildup to last year’s Constituent Assembly elections. What did that get them? The elections were held, the world moved on, without the much-needed attention paid to how illegal—in fact bizarre—the whole process was. This time, by attempting to compete in patently fraudulent elections, the opposition will be able to present itself as both a victim and democratic champion in a way it won’t be able to if it just sits on the sidelines and denounces the conditions under which they—perhaps rightly—refuse to compete.
- The opposition has long shown itself all-too willing to boycott elections. This year is just the latest example. Even if this time—as they were for the Constituent Assembly and local elections—the reasons are legitimate for abstaining, many observers still remember the opposition’s petulant, unwise decision to refuse to participate in the 2005 legislative elections. It was a serious political blunder, questioned and criticized by diplomats and the media, including The Economist. Sure, this time there really are deep concerns about the electoral process (unlike 2005) and the opposition had its legitimate 2015 National Assembly victory reduced to mere symbolism, but these same leaders have been playing Chicken Little for too long now. A surprise would be to show up and compete, all the while making all the noise about the unfairness and farcical nature of the elections. In fact, participating in the elections gives them more of a right to say this, and provides a rallying point for the international community (see point 2 above) to call attention to the farce. In Serbia, Ukraine and many other semi-closed systems, opposition groups at least show up to compete, and in the case of the former two they have won.
- You don’t want Henri Falcón to win, or even to come in second in a stolen election. I personally don’t care if Falcón wins. For me it’s all about the process. The opposition has tried to portray Falcón as a regime stooge or, at best, chavismo lite. But Venezuelans want change, and he is for now the only face of the change that many Venezuelans want on the ballot (see point 1 above). According to recent polls the former chavista and governor of Lara state is winning. Will the government let him win? Probably not. But by stealing the election from him, it will make him a democratic martyr—the mantle the opposition has struggled so long to gain internationally. And it will make him the international community’s rallying point (see point 2 above).
To be clear, I understand the abuses: the blatant, cynical use of food supplies to coerce starving voters to support the government; the threats to government employees or beneficiaries of what will happen if they don’t support Maduro; the unconstitutional, arbitrary way in which the date was set; the partisanship of the Consejo Nacional Electoral (CNE); the illegal prohibitions on the opposition parties and their leaders; and all the evidence of stolen elections and monkey business in the counting of ballots in the 2015 National Assembly, the 2017 constituent assembly elections and the 2017 local elections.
I understand the desire not to legitimize such a farce. But it’s already been delegitimized. Participating in Maduro’s sham elections will help show the unacceptable conditions under which they are taking place in a way that standing on the sidelines never can. Elections are a moment for reflection and, yes, protest. The trick to fielding a candidate should have been to find someone who wasn’t banned and try to run them as an alternative—sort of a modern-day equivalent of Juan Perón’s ploy in 1973 when he was banned by the military from running for president, and ran a straw man, Héctor Cámpora, as his party’s candidate with the slogan “Cámpora al gobierno, Perón al poder.” Imagine a similar moment, “[tal fulano] al gobierno, la MUD al power.” It would have given people an option, and reminded Venezuelans and the world that the opposition isn’t willing to let Maduro consolidate his power without a fight.