Photo: Sergio Garrido, Governor-elect of Barinas, celebrates his victory on Sunday / Manaure Quintero / Bloomberg
The Venezuelan opposition’s stunning victory in Chávez’s home state would not have been possible without the support of key centrist forces that have up to now been excluded from the mainstream opposition. Rebuilding opposition unity will be key to posing an effective electoral challenge to Chavismo.
It has been quite some time since a piece of good news came out of Venezuela, so opponents of Nicolás Maduro had a lot to celebrate on Sunday evening when electoral authorities announced that opposition state legislator Sergio Garrido had trounced the governing Socialist Party candidate by a 14-point margin in a special election for the governorship of Barinas. In what had seemed just the latest in an almost endless stream of government shenanigans to flout the will of Venezuelans, the government-controlled Supreme Court had invalidated the opposition’s razor-thin November victory in that state, arguing that its candidate had been disqualified from running—though no one knew exactly when or for what reason.
In trying to make sense of this amazing upset in nothing less than the late Hugo Chávez’s home state, it is tempting to latch onto a simple and appealing narrative of how the opposition regained Barinas: the government tried to steal the election by annulling the November vote; in reaction, voters got fed up and turned out massively to vote against Maduro’s candidate, delivering a victory so large that even the government-controlled electoral council could not alter the results.
However, things are more complicated. Yes, it was a stunning victory, but the main driver of it was not voter outrage but smart opposition tactics. In contrast to past elections—including that of November—the opposition candidate in Barinas sought out alliances with centrist groups that have emerged as a new force in Venezuelan politics. It was the support of key centrists, rather than increased mobilization, that allowed the opposition to trounce Maduro’s candidate. The Barinas victory was not a triumph of voluntarism—it was a victory of coalition politics.
What Happened in Barinas?
Somewhat counterintuitively, higher turnout in the January 9 elections did not work in the opposition’s favor. Yes, turnout was moderately higher in January than in November. Yet what the numbers tell us is that these additional votes were largely captured by the government candidate, former Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza. It is simple to see this from the raw numbers: 35 thousand more people voted in January than in November elections, and the government candidate, Arreaza, captured 76 percent of those additional votes. That explains why the governing Socialist PSUV party’s vote share rose from 36.8 percent to 41.3 percent between the two elections. In other words, it appears that the government’s last-minute push to get out the vote actually worked pretty well.
Figure 1: Electoral results in Barinas, 2021 and 2022 elections
Source: National Electoral Council
How then can we explain Garrido’s victory? It wasn’t because he was able to get disaffected former abstentionists to vote. It was that he was able to unify opposition voters. Back in November, other opposition candidates took 26 percent of the vote; this time around they came up with a paltry 3 percent. The overwhelming majority of those opposition votes migrated to Garrido, allowing him to raise his vote share from 37.1 to 55.4 percent. In November, Chavismo almost won out against a divided opposition. In January, it lost against a unified opposition.
Key to Garrido’s victory was the support of other opposition forces that had not supported the Democratic Unity Roundtable candidate, Freddy Superlano, back in November. Former Governor Rafael Rosales Peña, the candidate of the centrist Democratic Alliance who garnered 16.2 percent of the vote in November, thew his support behind Garrido, as did Henri Falcón’s Progressive Advance, Neighborhood Force, and several other opposition parties that had supported Rosales Peña and another candidate in November. Some other parties backed a third candidate, Claudio Fermin, yet the signal of unity was strong enough for voters to rally around Garrido.
What these results show us therefore is that there is much more to Venezuelan politics than the traditional mainstream opposition headed by Juan Guaidó and the parties that back him. They tell us that the key to defeating Chavismo in future elections lies in reunifying the opposition vote. In order to do so, we have to understand why so many Venezuelan voters are supporting parties that are outside of the mainstream coalition. This requires taking a close look at the large array of centrist political movements that have gained force in recent years, even as they have been dismissed by much of the international community and the mainstream opposition.
The End of Polarization?
Let’s look more closely at the results of the November 2021 regional elections. For years, analysis of Venezuela has been premised on the idea that the country is split into two political blocs: the followers of Hugo Chávez and his successor, Nicolás Maduro, on the one hand, and the country’s opposition on the other. That assumption was not only analytically convenient: it was consistent with almost all existing data, including electoral returns, opinion polls, and casual observation. Candidates representing government and opposition coalitions captured an average 93.9 percent of the vote in the 14 nationwide elections held since 2000 (excluding those that the opposition chose to boycott), while 69.5 percent of respondents labeled themselves either pro-opposition or pro-government between 2013 and 2017.
Yet the data from the November 2021 election tells another story. In November, candidates from the mainstream opposition and government coalitions—respectively known as the Democratic Unity Roundtable (Mesa de la Unidad Democrática, MUD) and the Great Patriotic Pole (Gran Polo Patriótico, GPP)—took only a combined 68 percent of the vote, while independent parties unaligned with either of these two poles took the remaining 32 percent. By contrast, back in the last regional elections held in 2017, the MUD and the GPP had jointly captured the support of 97.1 percent of voters, with independents taking only 2.9 percent of the vote.
Table 1: Distribution of votes by coalition in 2017, 2020, and 2021 elections
Source: National Electoral Council
Figure 2: Absolute votes by coalition in 2017, 2020, and 2021 elections
Source: National Electoral Council
Figure 3: Political self-identification in opinion surveys, 2015-2021
These results are mirrored in the evolution of the polling data. According to data from the local polling company Datanálisis, the share of voters who self-identified with either the government or the opposition in 2021 was only 39 percent, significantly lower than the 60 percent who claim to be aligned with neither sector. In contrast, back in 20156, 65 percent claimed to be aligned with the government or opposition while 31 percent saw themselves as non-aligned (Figure 3).
These changes in Venezuela’s political map have significant implications for political strategies and international policy regarding the Venezuelan crisis. Up to now, key actors of the international community have seen the MUD coalition as the only valid interlocutor for Venezuela’s opposition, dismissing other groups as neither representative nor genuine. The MUD itself has sought to characterize these groups as marginal and unrepresentative of Venezuelan voters. This attitude has been an obstacle to building coalitions like the one that proved successful in Barinas.
The fact that around a third of the Venezuelan electorate sees itself as represented by these other groups suggests that it is time to rethink those approaches. Continuing to ignore these groups or—even worse—treating them as simple stooges of the Maduro regime, risks alienating key sectors of Venezuelan society and feeding an increasing disconnect between the international community and the country’s political reality.
Who’s Who in the Venezuelan Political Landscape?
In 2015 the MUD—a coalition originally born out of a regrouping of opposition forces after the failure of the prior Democratic Coordinator at unseating Chávez—obtained a resounding victory in parliamentary elections when it garnered 56 percent of the vote to the GPP’s 41 percent. At that time, the MUD received 19 out of every 20 votes not cast for the government, making its claim to be the only legitimate representation of the opposition appear valid. The four largest parties in order of legislators obtained in that vote were Justice First (Primero Justicia, PJ, 33), Democratic Action (Acción Democrática, AD 25), A New Time (Un Nuevo Tiempo, 18) and Popular Will (Voluntad Popular, VP, 14), which together accounted for 90 of the MUD’s 112 elected legislators. This group of four parties, which became informally known as the G4, would dominate coalition decision-making in the years since 2015.
The Democratic Alliance (Alianza Democrática, ADem) has its origins in the split caused in the opposition by the MUD’s decision to boycott the 2018 presidential elections. This led Henri Falcón, former governor of the state of Lara in the country’s central-western region, to stage his own presidential bid, with the backing of several small parties, some of which had previously left the MUD. Falcón obtained 21 percent of the vote in that election while Javier Bertucci, an evangelical pastor with no prior political experience, obtained 11 percent. While running separate slates in the 2020 parliamentary election, in September 2020, Falcón and Bertucci’s parties announced the creation of ADem.
They were later joined by several additional parties that share their criticism of MUD leaders and strategies. Prominent among these are former dissidents of the G4 parties. On May 11, 2018, a group of legislators headed by Timoteo Zambrano, a veteran legislator and former lead opposition negotiator from the 2002-03 talks, left UNT, ultimately to create the Let’s Change Movement (Movimiento Cambiemos, MC). Other political leaders split off from AD, VP, and PJ and decided to legally contest leadership of their parties through the Supreme Tribunal of Justice (TSJ). They obtained a favorable TSJ ruling in the first two of these cases. (To distinguish them from the original party leaderships, I will refer to these dissident-controlled groups as AD-D and VP-D, retaining the original labels for the G4 members.)
An additional important movement is Neighborhood Force (Fuerza Vecinal, FV). In contrast to ADem, FV has its origins in another boycott, that of the December 2017 mayoral elections. Two months before that election, the MUD faced a major loss in gubernatorial elections that it had expected to win, with Maduro’s favored candidates taking 17 out of 23 governorships. The MUD charged that the results were due to massive fraud and decided to boycott the coming elections until it could negotiate better electoral conditions. Nevertheless, in mayoral elections held in December, local political leaders from the MUD questioned the strategy of boycotting elections in certain opposition bastions, including the wealthiest sectors of Caracas. They decided to run their own candidacies on independent or third-party tickets in a selected number of cities, a decision that the MUD leadership turned a blind eye to. Over time, the elected mayors became progressively estranged from the MUD, leading to their decision to run their own candidates on the FV ticket in 2021.
Rounding out the map are other independent movements, regional parties, and Chavista dissidents. Among the last of these, perhaps the most important group is the Communist Party, which has backed the government candidate in all presidential elections since 1999 yet often runs its own slates in parliamentary and regional elections and is at times highly critical of the government party. Additionally, some holdout opposition groups did not participate in the November elections, continuing to advocate a strategy of boycotts. Among these the most relevant is Join Us Venezuela (Vente Venezuela, VV), led by former legislator María Corina Machado, who continues to have some of the highest approval ratings among opposition leaders.
Will the Real Opposition Please Stand Up?
Over the past few years, members of the international community critical of the Maduro regime have largely treated the MUD as the only legitimate representation of the Venezuelan opposition. Part of the justification for this is its dominance of the 2015 National Assembly. Since these countries have characterized all elections since 2015 as being neither free nor fair, it seems only natural to look to the results of that election as being the best indicator of the political views of Venezuelans. The fact that—as I discussed above—the MUD garnered the support of 95 percent of non-government votes at that time appears to lend strong justification to its claim of being the only coalition that can speak for the opposition.
One of the problems of this argument is that the MUD today represents only part of the coalition that was so successful in 2015. Of 112 principal legislators elected on the MUD ticket in 2015, only 79 now remain in the MUD, with the attrition caused by desertions from all the G4 parties as well as the exit from the coalition of some smaller parties. Even the MUD Secretary General at the time of the 2015 elections, Jesús “Chuo” Torrealba, is now among the coalition’s fiercest critics. The MUD’s continued control of the 2015 National Assembly sessions owes largely to the fact that those legislators who have left the coalition do not participate in the sessions, allowing Guaidó to substitute them with their alternates. Putting aside the issue of desertions, political preferences evolve and it is clearly not always a wise choice to use the results of an election that took place six years ago as the only relevant measure of Venezuelan political preferences.
The November election results give us a snapshot of how much the political map has changed. While the MUD’s was the single most voted ticket after that of the governing GPP, obtaining a total of 1.9 million votes, that number represents only 40 percent of votes not cast for the government. In other words, if we accept to label as opposition voters all of those who voted for candidates other than those supporting Maduro, then we must contend with the fact that 3 out of every five opposition votes went to candidates other than those backed by the MUD. Furthermore, the absolute decline in support for the MUD is notable: in the last gubernatorial elections in 2017 it obtained 4.9 million votes, while in this one it garnered only 1.9 million, a 61 percent decline.
If, on the other hand, we were to buy into the characterization of centrist groups as being pro-government, we would have to conclude that the “real” opposition was outvoted by a four-to-one ratio. Put differently, the claims that the mainstream opposition is the only opposition and that it has the support of the majority of voters are inconsistent.
The second largest-voted political group in November was ADem, although exactly how many votes should be attributed to it is open to discussion. In contrast to the MUD, ADem parties did not always back the same candidate. In fact, it is not altogether clear that ADem is functioning as a working coalition for electoral purposes, given that it is individual parties and not the coalition leadership that announced candidates. In the Barinas special election, some ADem parties backed Garrido, the MUD candidate, while others backed Fermín. Nevertheless, the group of parties is still useful analytically as it captures those with a centrist position in Venezuela’s political spectrum. For this reason in Table 1 I offer two alternative tallies of the Adem vote: one in which I count as votes those obtained by candidates of all parties that are formally part of it, and another one in which I count only the votes obtained by the single most-voted candidate in the state that was supported by parties in ADem. If we use all votes obtained by ADem candidates, we obtain 1.7 million votes, or 37 percent of opposition votes, while if we use the only the votes obtained by their top candidates, we get 1.5 million votes (31 percent of the opposition vote). ADem also slightly improved its performance to the 2020 parliamentary elections in absolute numbers and as a share of registered voters.
A third group of non-government voters supported other options different from the MUD and ADem. The total of votes for these “fourth parties” sums 1.1 million, or 23 percent, of the opposition vote. Of these, Neighborhood Force is clearly the most important one, at 433 thousand votes (9 percent of opposition votes). Note that it is probably unwise to treat this last category of other parties as homogenous, as it includes some pro-government parties such as the Communists (144 thousand, or 3 percent of the opposition vote) that would probably side with Maduro in a national vote.
What This Means for the International Community
In recent years, opposition leaders have often derided non-MUD opposition groups as neither relevant nor genuine, but the opposition’s victory in Barinas would likely not have been possible without the support of key centrist groups outside of the MUD. The results of the November elections and recent public opinion data suggest that Venezuelan political preferences may be evolving with the emergence of a third pole of centrist voters. Around a third of voters in November—and three out of every five voters that cast votes against the government—did so to support centrist candidates, most of whom are strongly critical of both the Maduro government and the mainstream opposition. These centrist candidates include parties that have historically been against electoral boycotts, economic sanctions, and calls for military intervention, as well as those that are focused on regional issues.
The emergence of a third political bloc suggests the need to rethink the international community’s strategy towards Venezuela’s crisis. It is no longer clear that continuing to exclude opposition groups other than the Unitary Platform from internationally supported negotiations aimed at finding a political solution to the country’s crisis is a tenable strategy. Continuing to do so is likely to simply marginalize a large sector of Venezuelans, making any potential agreement that could emerge from these talks much more vulnerable to domestic opposition.
Given their electoral performance in November and their ability to play a kingmaker role in the Barinas election, the possibility that centrist forces can build on those successes to continued strong showings in coming elections, including the important 2024 presidential elections, should not be discounted. In that scenario, if the international community continues its current approach, they could unnecessarily antagonize a set of crucial and potentially influential political actors. As long as they can maintain their current political and electoral strength, it is highly likely that centrist forces will play an important role in Venezuela’s political future, especially in any negotiated political transition in which they would be well positioned to become natural interlocutors for regime moderates.
Ultimately, any opposition platform that seeks to oppose Maduro successfully must aim at gaining the support of the 2.9 million voters who decided to cast votes neither for Maduro nor for the MUD candidates in November. Doing so will require addressing the concerns of these voters, many of whom are turned off by the opposition’s maximalist strategies, support of sanctions, and corruption scandals around the interim government’s managing of public funds.
Defeating Maduro will require that the opposition do at a national level what it was just able to pull off in Barinas: building an inclusive coalition that resembles much more the successful MUD of 2015 than the narrower group that has dominated decisionmaking in the interim government. Rather than continuing to throw its support behind the claims of specific opposition factions, the international community should aim to support political negotiations among all forces that are opposed to Maduro to facilitate the rebuilding of a broad alliance of anti-Maduro actors that can serve as interlocutor for the true plurality of Venezuela’s political landscape.
Francisco Rodríguez is the International Affairs Fellow in International Economics at the Council on Foreign Relations and Director of Oil for Venezuela.
 In the third of these, the TSJ initially ruled in favor of the contester and ordered him president of an ad-hoc board of PJ on June 16, 2020. Nevertheless, on September 4, 2020, the TSJ annulled their decision and destitute the ad-hoc board. The leaders ultimately went on to found Venezuela First (Primero Venezuela, PV).
 The characterization of the 2015 elections as free and fair is itself open to question. The 2015 elections were overseen, as were later races, by a highly partisan electoral council, and there was no shortage of decisions that inclined the playing field in favor of the government. Allegations of vote tampering have been voiced in Venezuelan electoral processes since at least 2004, yet hard evidence of large-scale national alteration of vote totals remains scant.
 Strictly speaking only 109 legislators were elected on the MUD ticket, while three additional legislators were elected as Indigenous legislators in a concurrently held election in which party labels were not used. However, the 3 Indigenous legislators counted with the support of the MUD and have remained loyal to the MUD so I refer to them as members of the MUD coalition throughout.
 For ease of comparison, this total includes results from the Caracas mayoral election held in December of that year, as no vote was held in Caracas in October. If we restrict ourselves just to the 23 states in which voters voted in both elections (no vote was held in Caracas in 2017), then the decline is 63.2 percent (from 4.9 to 1.8 million).
 All the calculations of vote totals are based on votes for gubernatorial candidates in the 23 states plus that of votes for mayor of Caracas.,