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President Nicolás Maduro’s ruling socialist party just took control of the last institution in Venezuela it didn’t already control: The National Assembly.
On Tuesday, the regime swore in 277 new lawmakers following last month’s legislative elections, which were marred by fraud, repression, low turnout, and an electoral boycott by most of the opposition. The new lawmakers, almost all Maduro loyalists, immediately voted to end the interim presidency of opposition leader Juan Guaidó.
But Guaidó and his allies have been unwilling to simply step aside. In early December, they held a parallel popular consultation on rejecting the Maduro government. Then, in a separate move last month, they voted to extend a legislative mandate they received after the opposition won a landslide victory in the 2015 elections. In the name of “constitutional continuity,” they have sworn to continue operating a legislative adjunct committee for at least the next 12 months.
Several challenges are already surfacing. Maduro loyalists on the Supreme Tribunal of Justice have already ruled the extension invalid.
With opposition leaders no longer shielded by parliamentary immunity, persecution will likely increase in the near term. President Maduro has said so himself, floating the idea of trying Guaidó publicly for corruption.
Internal divisions within the opposition have also resurfaced with a vengeance. Earlier this year, various opposition factions struggled to converge on an electoral strategy, with sectors led by ex-presidential candidate Henrique Capriles and Stalin González at first planning to participate before later backing out. The country’s second-largest opposition party, Acción Democratica, came out against the extension of Guaidó’s mandate.
But the problems may run even deeper. Recent polls show 62 percent of Venezuelans support neither the opposition nor the regime, and Guaidó enjoys only half the popularity he did just one year ago.
According to Michael Penfold, opposition leaders have become increasingly detached from ordinary Venezuelans and their problems, generating a “crisis of representation.”
Now, a debate is brewing over how the opposition can survive the next period and press for free and fair elections. The debate preceded last month’s elections, but it has intensified since. At its core is a disagreement about domestic politics—specifically, whether possibilities still exist to build grassroots organization, and whether it’s worth competing in future elections likely to be every bit as unfair as last month’s contest.
Guaidó and his closest allies seem to view the domestic space for opposition as effectively closed—at least since state repression quashed mass pro-democracy protests in early 2019 and the handful of military defections that followed that April. Publicly, this group still calls for mass protests, but most of their energy has gone to rallying international support. They led the charge on last month’s electoral boycott on the grounds that participating would only lend the Maduro regime undue legitimacy. Meanwhile, a hardline opposition sector led by María Corina Machado sees even fewer possibilities for change within Venezuela’s borders.
A growing number of voices have called for a different approach. Capriles and González, as well as observers like Ángel Álvarez, recently stirred up controversy by insisting that the opposition spend less time on its allies abroad and more time on a strategy at home. They insist that, despite all the obstacles in its way, the opposition must embrace the slow and painstaking work of building grassroots organization, addressing the population’s basic unmet needs, and preparing to compete in future elections. Of course, this is easier said than done.
For now, the debate rages on—and with good reason. Choosing to compete on a starkly uneven playing field always implies steep trade-offs for pro-democracy forces. Moreover, the Maduro regime has stepped up state repression significantly over the past two years, making it very unclear just how much room the opposition has to maneuver.
To understand what the opposition stands to lose or gain, its own history offers lessons.
Full circle to abstentionism?
Fall 2019 wasn’t the first time Venezuela’s opposition split over electoral strategy. The dilemma was just as pressing in the early 2000s, when Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chávez, was well on his way to concentrating power.
In 2003, a different coalition of opposition forces launched a recall referendum. The goal was to end Chávez’s power grab, but delays engineered by the National Electoral Council, and a flood of state spending, took the wind out of the referendum’s sails.
That’s when the opposition turned to abstention. With the 2005 competition for the National Assembly approaching, leading opposition figures argued that participating, given the unfair conditions, would simply play into Chávez’s hands. They hoped a boycott would encourage the international community to put pressure on Chávez. The pressure never came. Chávez allies ended up controlling all branches of government, and the opposition neared the verge of collapse.
Fifteen years later, it would be an understatement to say that much has changed. The Maduro regime has been much more willing to strip opposition-controlled institutions, like the National Assembly and local governments, of their power. It has also become more openly autocratic and repressive than ever before. Finally, international pressure is at an all-time high, although it has done little to weaken Maduro’s coalition. But there is at least one parallel to the earlier chapter in Venezuela’s history: once again, most of Venezuela’s opposition chose to sit out a critical vote.
In an interview with Global Americans, Amherst professor of political science and Venezuela expert Javier Corrales shed light on the dilemma. “On the one hand, the opposition really lost control of the National Assembly years ago,” Corrales explained, referring to the creation of the National Constituent Assembly in 2017, which until recently acted as Maduro’s de facto parallel legislature.
“However, abstention was a terrible mistake.” Corrales added. “The opposition handed over control of the National Assembly instead of using the opportunity to demonstrate there was fraud and create a scandal. When elections are botched, there’s enough energy out there to produce unrest. But this time, besides abstention, there was no plan B.”
Sitting out votes may also undermine opposition unity. Even deeply flawed elections create incentives for various opposition factions to unite around candidates and an agenda. But when the opposition sits out votes, internal divisions tend to flare.
“Every time that the opposition decides to compete electorally, it becomes stronger and figures out how to unify,” Corrales explained. The trajectory the opposition took after its earlier brush with abstentionism is instructive. Various opposition parties recommitted to participating in elections, however flawed, and remobilized voters—first, to defeat a 2007 referendum ending presidential term limits, and then to support unity candidates in 2008 local elections and the 2010 presidential race.
These votes were far from free and fair, and none of them saw the opposition score decisive wins. Chávez lost the 2007 referendum, but later managed to end term limits; opposition mayors like Greater Caracas’ Antonio Ledezma were stripped of their power to govern; and Chávez was reelected in 2010. But, according to Venezuela expert Maryhen Jiménez, the decision to participate still paid long-term dividends.
“Seeing that the unified ticket paid off gave the opposition a much-needed push.” In the years that followed, opposition leaders developed mechanisms to constrain personal ambitions and stop the infighting—notably, the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD), which gave each major opposition party a turn to lead. In 2015, the strategy of doggedly participating finally paid off. Corrales observed, “electoral irregularities were quite severe, but the opposition showed that it had the numbers on its side and overcame the disadvantages to win the National Assembly.”
Of course, much would soon change. Repression intensified. Maduro set up parallel institutions, from his de facto legislature to “protectors” that governed opposition-controlled states from the shadows. Meanwhile, the opposition fell prey to its own dilemmas. Various leaders tried to position themselves to succeed Maduro. The Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign only unified regime elites behind Maduro and complicated European Union efforts to negotiate fairer electoral conditions.
Faced with these conditions, almost all opposition leaders decided it wasn’t worth it to run in last month’s sham elections. “Participating is costly,” Jiménez observed. “Maximalists on your own side will abandon you. Then, if you win, the government will take away your power.”
Still, if the past is any guide, abstention might be even costlier. Opposition leaders will have to come to their own conclusions before their next major challenge: 2021 regional elections. Fraud, repression, and the country’s centralized political system are sure to work against the opposition, but if international pressure can be brought to bear, perhaps in exchange for limited sanctions relief, the opposition may be able to take back control of at least part of the state.
For now, Maduro has tightened his grip on power. As limited as the options seem, the opposition will need to chart a path forward, internationally as well as domestically. That will mean deciding whether abstentionism works, or whether electoral participation, with all its risks, is still necessary.
Will Freeman is a Ph.D. candidate in Politics at Princeton University. You can follow him on Twitter @WillGFreeman
Victor Esteves is a policy analyst covering Latin America. You can follow him on Twitter @_holavictor