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New Atlanticist

March 13, 2024

Venezuela’s opposition is challenging Maduro in the next election. The only question is how.

By Geoff Ramsey

Ahead of a July 28 presidential election in which their top candidate is banned from participating, Venezuela’s opposition has three difficult choices: It can boycott the election. It can risk a deep fracture in its coalition. Or it can name a replacement candidate. So far, it is likely to run a “plan B” candidate in the unfair process, but the challenge will be moving forward with this plan while maintaining a united front.

On March 5, after weeks of speculation over when the presidential election might be scheduled, Venezuela’s National Electoral Council (CNE) announced that the vote will be held on July 28. Both the timing of the announcement and the election date were no coincidence. March 5 was the anniversary of the death of Hugo Chávez, strongman Nicolás Maduro’s predecessor and founder of the ruling United Socialist Party, and July 28 is his birthday. Venezuela’s Unitary Platform opposition coalition now faces the difficult task of coming up with a united strategy ahead of the election in which the deeply unpopular Maduro will have an unfair systematic advantage–and the symbolism of the announcement shows Maduro has no shame in letting that be known.

The clock is ticking. According to the electoral timetable announced by the CNE, the opposition has until March 25 to register a candidate in the election. While it can name a placeholder to buy time and reserve a slot on the ballot, the name of the candidate that will appear on voting day must be finalized by April 20.

María Corina Machado, the winner of the opposition primary held five months ago, remains banned from participating in the presidential election. While the Barbados Agreement that the government signed in October 2023 with the opposition announced the creation of a “procedure” to review bans on interested candidates, the Maduro-friendly Supreme Court has doubled down on Machado’s ban. The CNE’s own website makes clear that she is banned from participating in any elections until 2036.

With the deck stacked against it, the opposition needs every vote.

In the face of this reality, there are competing views on the way forward for Venezuela’s opposition. Machado has publicly rejected the government’s ban and insisted at campaign events around the country that she will run anyway. However, reports began surfacing since late in 2023 that she is more flexible in private and would be open to naming a successor if she ultimately could not run. Her public position remains firm, however, and at an Atlantic Council event on February 26, she acknowledged that she is holding her cards close to her vest. Although she said that she remains committed to “the electoral route,” she refused outright to reject the possibility of calling for abstention. Yet polls suggest an electoral boycott, such as the ones the mainstream opposition organized in the 2018 presidential election, would be deeply unpopular. According to a recent survey by the independent Caracas-based pollster Datincorp, 70 percent of Venezuelans say that if her ban remains in place, then Machado should name an alternate candidate to run instead.

In addition to being unpopular, calling for an electoral boycott would likely exacerbate divisions within the Unitary Platform that have long simmered under the surface. While some elements of the opposition coalition have rejected any talk of a substitute candidate, others have hinted that they will move to a “plan B” with or without Machado. The opposition governor of Barinas state, who himself won a deeply unfair election after the previous opposition winner had been banned from taking office, said in January: “Our position has always been clear, we are not going to stop for her [Machado], we will choose among all of us a new candidate, to be the president of all Venezuelans.” There have been reports that some members of the coalition are calling for Zulia state governor Manuel Rosales to be named as the alternate candidate.

The apparent willingness of some coalition members to field a candidate essentially guarantees that someone from the Unitary Platform will run for president in the July 28 election. The only question is whether it will be a united front. However reticent Machado may be to accept the idea of a substitute, it is almost certain that she would not endorse one who attempts to go around her back. And given her overwhelming popularity—Datincorp suggests she would beat Maduro by 40 points in a head-to-head match—Machado’s backing is essential for any replacement to stand a chance on July 28. With the deck stacked against it, the opposition needs every vote.

That leaves only one viable choice: Find a consensus candidate that has the full backing of the entire opposition spectrum, starting with Machado herself. This is easier said than done, but there is a way to ensure that a “plan B” scenario respects the outcome of the opposition primary and harnesses Machado’s popularity at the same time. In Venezuela, like in the United States, the vice president is next in the line of succession. Unlike the United States, however, candidates for vice president do not appear on the ballot. The position is appointed directly by the chief executive. Machado could, in theory, support a placeholder candidate—or a series of placeholder candidates, in the case that they face bans as well—with the understanding that this trusted individual would name her as vice president upon winning, and then resign from office. This would trigger new elections, or it would allow the vice president to assume the role of head of state if the resignation occurred in the last two years of the term.

This strategy would allow Machado to cement her image as not just a candidate, but as the leader of a broad and diverse majority of Venezuelans working to restore the country’s democratic institutions. Working alongside a renewed Unitary Platform coalition, she could energize and mobilize Venezuelans across the country, creating the best opportunity that the opposition has had in years to overcome an electoral system designed to work against them. The Datincorp poll shows that just 15 percent of Venezuelans would vote for Maduro, in line with other surveys which find that an extraordinary 85 percent of the country believes a change in government is necessary.

Even then, victory is far from guaranteed. At least four representatives of Machado’s campaign have been detained across the country in recent weeks, and rights groups say there are more than 250 political prisoners in Venezuela. This includes Rocío San Miguel, a well-known civil society activist whose arbitrary detention has sparked international condemnation. The government closed twelve radio stations across seven states last year, and the independent press faces an environment of constant censorship and repression. While the CNE has said it will invite credible electoral observers such as the European Union and the Carter Center to oversee the vote, the terms of these observation missions would have to be carefully negotiated. At this stage, it is entirely clear that Venezuela’s authoritarian reality will present the opposition with an uphill battle.

The path forward is narrow, and the opportunity is slim. But if the opposition can get behind a single candidate who can run in the election, the Venezuelan peoples’ overwhelming consensus against Maduro could be enough to—finally—bring democratic change.

Geoff Ramsey is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center.

Further reading

Image: Industrial engineer and former lawmaker Maria Corina Machado addresses supporters as she reacts to the vote count, after Venezuelans voted in a primary to choose a unity opposition candidate to face Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro in his probable re-election bid in 2024, in Caracas, Venezuela October 23, 2023. REUTERS/Leonardo Fernandez Viloria