Source: Cristian Hernandez / AFP.
After over a decade as president, Nicolás Maduro has managed to consolidate his power amid a deep humanitarian and economic crisis, overcoming international pressure and dividing the opposition by persecuting, threatening, imprisoning, and even torturing its leaders and supporters. Maduro has successfully fostered mutual distrust of what remains of the opposition through the purchase of some of its leaders, the judicial intervention on opposition political parties, and the encouragement of new opposition parties loyal to the Chavista political system.
This is not the first time the opposition has found itself divided. Nor is it the first time it has had to reinvent itself. However, after more than 24 years of struggle against Chavismo, disagreement on the best strategy to fight for democracy, as well as mutual distrust, are the main obstacles to building a new opposition alliance that can mobilize the population to displace the apparatus of the authoritarian regime led by Nicolás Maduro. However, the near future presents a unique moment since presidential and parliamentary elections are fast approaching in 2024 and 2025. So, the lingering question remains, what can the opposition do to take advantage of this unique window of opportunity?
The Opposition After Maduro’s Decade in Power
The Venezuelan opposition is now an archipelago of leaderships, interests, and ideologies—ranging from democratic opposition to an opposition loyal to the authoritarian regime. Prevalent fragmentation and mutual distrust hinder opponents from finding any consensus. At present, the opposition seems to agree on prioritizing the upcoming presidential (2024) and parliamentary (2025) elections. It has agreed to hold internal elections in October 2023 to select its new presidential candidate. However, the electoral route will be an uphill struggle, which entails restoring fair electoral conditions that Chavismo has systematically eroded. The Bertelsmann Transformation Index (BTI) 2022 country report on Venezuela highlighted the deep-seated irregularities in the parliamentary election of December 2020, which it described as “irregular from the beginning to the end of the cycle, including aspects such as its schedule; regulation; the registration of voters, parties and candidates; observation; the voting itself; the vote count; the audit; and the proclamation of elected representatives.”
Likewise, the opposition also faces the challenging task of reversing its own anti-election discourse—it previously urged the population to boycott the presidential elections held in 2018 and the parliamentary elections of 2020, a major challenge in a society in which 77 percent of people distrust the electoral management body (CNE), according to a 2020 Latinobarómetro survey. Overall, the greatest challenge for the opposition is to rebuild a political consensus within its own diverse ranks, define a unified strategy path, and boost its credibility among a politically dejected population—still struggling to survive the multifaceted humanitarian crisis.
Chavismo and Corruption
While the opposition struggles with its internal challenges, Chavismo is also a heterogeneous group of actors seeking to retain power, avoid political change, and distribute the benefits of the Venezuelan’s oil earnings through corruption. The same surmised the status quo as: “A petrostate in decay, the country is characterized by the amassing of political and economic power in the hands of an autocratic ruling elite, unfettered corruption, patronage networks, weak institutional arrangements and the brutal repression of dissent.” At present, different parties, businessmen, and, of course, the military, among others, coexist in tense harmony as long as the economic benefits flow. A report by the Venezuelan chapter of Transparency International shows that illicit economies are estimated at USD $9,444 million annually, representing just over a fifth of its GDP, making it the second most important sector after oil.
However, the easing of international pressure following the Russian invasion of Ukraine as well as the fragmentation of the opposition, have allowed Nicolás Maduro to begin a purge of his alliance, confiscating the assets of those targeted by his anti-corruption drive and attempting to boost his image by fighting corruption. As part of his so-called special anti-corruption drive, more than 61 people, including mayors and pro-Chávez deputies, were arrested in March. Additionally, it led to the resignation of his Minister of Petroleum, Tareck El Aissami, one of the most loyal and powerful hardliners of the regime. This is the most important internal challenge to Chavismo during Maduro’s government, as it targets a minister in office and is part of a clean-up campaign promoted directly by the president himself. Meanwhile, Maduro has stated that he will request special powers from Parliament to continue his offensive—less than a year and a half before the presidential election.
Undoubtedly, the fragmentation of the opposition has helped consolidate Nicolás Maduro’s regime. The fact that opposition parties and leaders spend time, energy, and resources arguing with each other via the media and social networks, rather than challenging the authoritarian government, eases Maduro’s path to govern without major political challenges. For example, the opposition’s lack of internal cohesion prevented the building of an electoral coalition during the regional and local elections of November 2021, facilitating the victory of Chavismo in 16 Governorships and dozens of Municipalities. The opposition vote actually surpassed that of the governing party (PSUV, Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela, per its Spanish acronym) and its allies, but ended up being shared among the different opposition candidates and parties.
Toward a Solidified Opposition
That said, the end of the interim government led by Juan Guaidó provides scope to construct a new, more solid opposition coalition. To achieve this, it must rebuild its trust with the Venezuelan people by listening to their needs and becoming a true messenger of their demands. Likewise, rebuilding trust with the Venezuelan people will require offering the country a political strategy that reaches out to all sectors of society, including the numerous followers of Chavismo, as well as including a wide range of civil society organizations, unions, and others—in short, incorporating all of Venezuela’s social capital.
Such an alliance, meanwhile, will require the international community to offer technical assistance and electoral observation through organizations such as the United Nations and the European Union, as was the case in the 2021 elections. In short, holding internal elections to select the opposition candidate for the 2024 presidential elections is a good start for the opposition, though on its own will not be enough. After all, its success in perusing the electoral route will ultimately hinge on its capacity to reconnect with voters and to mobilize popular dissatisfaction and desperation.
Héctor Briceño is a PhD in political science, Researcher at the Center for Development Studies of the Central University of Venezuela (Cendes-UCV), and Guest Researcher at the University of Rostock. His topics of interest are democracy, political parties, and elections.