Venezuela votes in regional elections under international gaze

CARACAS, Venezuela – A divided Venezuelan opposition found itself on familiar ground on Monday, losing an overwhelming majority of races contested in a regional election the day before. But the divisions over how to overcome the expected defeat and achieve their goal of toppling President Nicolás Maduro have never been so obvious.

The disagreements extend even to the act of voting itself, with one of its most recognizable leaders skipping the ballots on Sunday, when more than 3,000 offices, including majors and governors, were held. been contested in this troubled South American country. Opposition parties ultimately won three governor races, but working together they had already won double that number.

“Today, a new phase must be opened in the work of reconstruction, of reunification (of) the democratic alternative in Venezuela, strengthening and clarifying the objectives that have united us all these years and assuming the responsibilities that must be assumed right now, “Juan Guaidó, leader of the US-backed opposition faction, told reporters. “This is not the time to fight between parties, this is not the time to fight between the egos of political leaders, it is the time for reflection, unity and work for the political leaders. Venezuelans. “

Guaidó, like millions of other Venezuelans, did not vote in regional contests. The National Electoral Council said about 42.3 percent, or about 8.15 million, of the country’s 21 million registered voters cast their ballot.

Sunday marked the return of major opposition parties to electoral competitions, which they had boycotted since 2017, arguing that the country lacks conditions for free and fair elections – a message Guaidó repeated on Monday. These majors have agreed to participate in the elections as part of the now suspended negotiations with Maduro’s government.

The dialogue between Maduro and his opponents also led to the presence of more than 130 international observers, mostly from the European Union, during the ballot. They traveled the country to observe electoral conditions such as fairness, access to media, campaign activities and the disqualification of candidates.

Hospital worker Pedro Martinez, 56, said he understood why few people were lining up at the polling center in a neighborhood in eastern Caracas that typically votes against Maduro and his allies: the chiefs of the opposition “fight among themselves”.

“This split in the opposition leads to few people (voting),” Martinez said. “The opposition has to work very hard to gain the trust of the people.”

The results showed that pro-government candidate Carmen Meléndez, former defense minister, was the winner of the mayoral race in Caracas, the capital.

In the neighboring state of Miranda, of high strategic value for the opposition, the pro-government governor Héctor Rodríguez was re-elected with more than 396,000 votes. That’s around 60,600 more than its closest candidate, opposition candidate David Uzcategui. The sum of the votes among the candidates other than the official alliance exceeded the votes in favor of Rodríguez, a close collaborator of Maduro.

Opposition candidates were elected governors of the central state of Cojedes, the island state of Nueva Esparta and Zulia. At its best, participating en bloc, the opposition won six governorships and 76 city halls in 2008 and 2013, respectively.

“The electoral strategy is now more limited for the opposition,” said Jacqueline Mazza, senior assistant professor of Latin American studies at Johns Hopkins University. “I think the question for the opposition now is, under the current conditions coming back after boycotting two of them, what are they going to do in two years? Because they cannot present themselves under the same lack of minimum conditions.

Regional competitions do not normally attract much attention beyond the country’s borders, but Sunday was different due to measures taken by Maduro’s regime and his opponents ahead of the elections.

The predominantly pro-Maduro National Assembly in May appointed two well-known opponents to the leadership of the electoral council, including an activist who was jailed for participating in actions aimed at destabilizing the government. This is the first time since 2005 that the Venezuelan opposition has more than one member on the board of directors of the five-person electoral body.

In August, representatives of Maduro’s government and Guaidó’s allies began a formal dialogue, led by Norwegian diplomats and hosted by Mexico, to find a common path out of their country’s political deadlock. At the end of the month, the opposition’s decision to participate in the elections was announced. For months, Maduro’s representatives had also had behind-the-scenes talks with allies of former opposition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles.

The EU, motivated by the talks in Mexico, accepted the Venezuelan authorities’ invitation to send election observers. But those talks were put on hold last month following the extradition to the United States of a key Maduro ally.

European Union observers are expected to issue a preliminary report on Tuesday and an in-depth review next year.

Maduro, after the publication of preliminary results, called on winners and losers to participate in “political dialogue”. But hours earlier, in remarks to reporters, Maduro said formal dialogue with the opposition could not resume at this time. He argued that the US government “stabbed the dialogue in the back.”

The United States has imposed economic sanctions on the Venezuelan government, Maduro and some of its allies, including Saab, to deprive Maduro’s government of its main sources of revenue.

“The United States supports the Venezuelan people in their desire for a peaceful restoration of democracy through free and fair elections, with full respect for freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly,” the secretary said on Monday. of US State Antony Blinken in a statement. “… We continue to support the negotiations led by Venezuela to restore the democracy that Venezuelans deserve and to alleviate the suffering inflicted on them by Maduro and his facilitators.”

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