Juan Guaido, Venezuela’s opposition leader and self-proclaimed interim president, has called for a boycott of legislative elections on Sunday, a move critics say will consolidate President Nicolas Maduro’s grip on power and leave Guaido out in the political cold.
Eights years into a crippling economic crisis, Venezuelans head to the polls on Sunday in parliamentary elections that will see the ruling Socialist Party and its allies run virtually uncontested.
As a result, President Maduro’s camp is poised to gain control of the National Assembly, the only institution not yet in its hands.
"I know that we are going to have a great triumph. I know it!" a confident Maduro told an election rally this week.
"We are going to solve the problems we have with the new National Assembly. The opposition, the extremist right, has no plan for the country," added the Venezuelan president, whose 30-year-old son is running for a seat.
Venezuela's National Assembly is currently the only check on the president's power, though its decisions are routinely quashed by the Maduro-friendly Supreme Court and bypassed by the Constituent Assembly, whose members were elected in 2017 in a poll also boycotted by the opposition.
Defeat on Sunday will potentially leave the opposition out in the political cold, despite its leader Guaido, the current National Assembly speaker, being recognised by more than 50 countries as Venezuela’s interim president.
Guaido, 37, called for a boycott in August on grounds that "free and fair" conditions for holding elections do not exist. He labelled Sunday's poll "a fraud".
Instead, the self-proclaimed interim president and his allies plan a week-long plebiscite from Monday seeking public support to prolong the mandate of the current National Assembly.
“Guaido’s coalition has come up with this idea to restore a measure of legitimacy to his interim presidency,” said Aquiles Este, a Miami-based political analyst, in an interview with FRANCE 24.
“But what I would like to know as a Venezuelan national is how do we continue the fight against the mafia currently in power?” Este added. “The opposition needs to find alternative solutions, because Guaido will simply be shut out of power after December 6.”
Guaido’s unkept promise
Maduro, a former bus driver who became president on the death of his mentor Hugo Chavez in 2013, was re-elected in 2018 in fraud-tainted polls, a victory that much of the international community branded illegitimate.
The United States, the European Union and many Latin American countries have long blamed Venezuela's crippling economic crisis on Maduro's repression and mis-rule.
Instead, they backed Guaido when the National Assembly speaker proclaimed himself interim president in January of last year.
Initial enthusiasm has waned, however, with critics seeing Guaido's plebiscite ploy as a desperate gamble.
“Relations between Guaido and his international sponsors have cooled considerably,” Jean-Jacques Kourliandsky, a Latin America specialist, told FRANCE 24 in an interview last month. “True to his preference for strongmen and ‘winners’, [US President] Donald Trump now sees Guaido as a ‘loser’.”
According to Este, the same perception is spreading among the Venezuelan public too.
“The opposition has never looked so weak in the eyes of the public,” he says. “Guaido arrived with a promise to chase Maduro out of the Miraflores presidential palace, but he’s been incapable of doing so.”
A boost for Maduro's global standing?
Victory on Sunday will provide Maduro with important validation in the eyes of his foreign allies, helping his regime circumvent US and EU sanctions, according to Luis Vicente Leon, director of pollsters Datanalisis.
"He is not looking at the United States, or Europe, to recognise him (...). He wants China to feel there's an institutional framework that can provide backing for agreements such as those on oil or infrastructure," Leon told AFP.
Allies such as Russia, India, Mexico and Turkey will feel similarly reassured, Leon said.
The electoral authority, appointed by the Supreme Court, said more than 20 million people are eligible to vote in the disputed polls.
Maduro's ruling party strategists have mobilised the party machine to urge a large turnout on Sunday. However, pollsters expect turnout to be as low as 30 percent.
"It will be a war of perception," said Felix Seijas of analysts Delphos. The opposition is counting on a low turnout to undermine Maduro, who needs to show the tide of public opinion has turned away from Guaido.
But a desperately low turnout could hurt both sides, Este warns, cementing the opposition’s political irrelevance.
“The expected turnout shows how little interest and credibility this divided opposition currently commands,” Este explained. “Today, the priority for the Venezuelan population is to survive.”
No more ‘carte blache’ for Guaido
Opposition dissidents who criticise Guaido for calling the boycott will take part in the election, despite being accused of lending Maduro legitimacy.
"They are going to represent the new opposition after January 5" when the new legislature takes office, political scientist Jesus Castillo told AFP.
Analysts say the Guaido-led opposition lacks direction and has erred by putting too much emphasis on its quest for international support.
Guaido has called for increased sanctions from the US and EU, even though a Datanalisis poll showed 71 percent of Venezuelans oppose more crippling sanctions.
Countries aligned with Guaido will reject the result, said Seijas. "But how forcefully? If the rejection is not forceful, opposition morale will plummet even further."
Leon said some European allies were becoming increasingly concerned about giving Guaido "carte blanche" for an interim role "ad infinitum".
"They feel that recognition, without elections, without validation, is like naming an emperor."
The opposition is already divided over the wisdom of a boycott, said Leon.
"You are offering an abstention that leads absolutely nowhere else than the same place you are already in," the analyst said. "The only thing you manage to preserve is an interim government that's symbolic."
(FRANCE 24 with AFP)