Venezuela kicks off its most uncertain presidential campaign

The dispute between President Nicolás Maduro and opposition leader Edmundo González is pitting continuity against the beginning of a transition that would end 25 years of Bolivarian revolution

Nicolás Maduro
President Nicolás Maduro greets a crowd during the official launch of the presidential campaign in Caracas on July 4, 2024.Cristian Hernandez (AP)
Juan Diego Quesada

Venezuela has begun its most uncertain election campaign. The outcome of the election matters, as it will determine who receives the mandate to govern the country over the next five years; but what happens after the election is even more important. Chavismo, if it accepts the results of July 28, may have to abandon a power that has become absolute over time: the so-called Bolivarian revolution, devised by Hugo Chávez in the late 90s, now controls all state institutions. Many people believe that, right now, the conditions are not there for a transition to restore the democratic values of the Republic and accept turns in government. The United States and other countries such as Colombia and Brazil are negotiating against the clock with Nicolás Maduro for a written agreement that he will respect the results of the election if they are unfavorable to him.

For now, according to the most reliable surveys, they are unfavorable. Edmundo González Urrutia, the consensus candidate of the opposition, is leading practically all the polls, with a significant lead in some of them. Maduro, after touring the country for a month, has regained some popularity, which has gone from 19% to 25%. According to sources close to Chavismo, the president has also received figures that are alarming for his interests, although he still believes he can turn them around. The ruling party has an important network of supporters achieved through the management of social aid, such as CLAP food packages. Furthermore, the opposition does not get coverage in the local media, it will probably not have observers at all the polling stations, and it is putting forward two or three other candidates who will take votes away from González.

Venezuela Nicolás Maduro
Supporters of Venezuela President Nicolás Maduro during the official start of the presidential campaign in Caracas.MIGUEL GUTIERREZ (EFE)

That something is not going well for Chavismo is demonstrated by the fact that two days ago, Maduro announced that he was resuming talks with the White House. This has given rise to all kinds of speculation. There are those who believe that the ruling party is trying to buy time and even postpone the elections. Others think the government is seeking a negotiated solution and a kind of amnesty for its leaders. Jorge Rodríguez, Maduro’s political operator, met on Wednesday by video call with representatives of the Joe Biden Administration and at the end of it he made a statement in which he did not give many specific details about what was discussed. At the same time, the president of Colombia, Gustavo Petro, is trying to get the parties to sign a document committing to recognize the results and not persecute the losers. Fitting all these pieces together is a real diplomatic challenge for all those involved. The destiny of a nation is at stake.

In the hypothetical case that Chavismo was willing to share power with another actor, a period of unknowns would open up. The most pessimistic (or realistic) observers believe that this is not going to happen under any circumstances. Why would the ruling party abandon power, what would it gain by that? It would be a way to pacify the country, which has been in permanent tension for 25 years: the parties are at odds with one another and hold irreconcilable positions. Along the way, the country has suffered a brutal economic crisis, which has led seven million people to emigrate. We are talking about the largest exodus in the history of Latin America. Chavismo has weakened the opposition with the arrest of its leaders, the disqualification of its most popular figures — such as María Corina Machado, who has the power to mobilize the masses, but who has had to cede her candidacy to Edmundo González —, thus reducing the minimal margin of action, more typical of an authoritarian environment. Added to this are the great mistakes of the opponents, who have spent years disunited.

If indeed the occupant of Miraflores Palace were to change, Edmundo González would have a gigantic mission ahead of him. From July to January, Maduro would continue to preside over the country, and during that period anything could happen. The Assembly, where Chavismo has an overwhelming majority, would have one more year in office. And he would have to navigate between institutions co-opted by Chavismo, the most important of which is the Army, where a revolutionary mentality prevails, something truly surprising if one takes into account the military history of the region. Colombia’s Petro is trying to make Maduro see, according to sources consulted by this newspaper, that leaving power for a time could help Chavismo restructure itself and later return to Miraflores in a context of political normality, similar to that of other surrounding countries. Venezuela would abandon its status as a pariah among the international community.

Venezuelans, if the polls are anything to go by, will be exhausted by the time they go cast their ballot. Chávez’s revolutionary project experienced peaks of prosperity with the oil boom in the early 2000s, but then plummeted, and problems worsened after his death, which ushered in the Maduro era. The daily shortage of goods is a burden that has caused Chavismo to lose many followers. Experts estimate that they represent 20% of the population, thanks to the hundreds of thousands of public employees who got their jobs thanks to their political loyalty, plus segments of the population that are still very ideologized. María Corina Machado and Edmundo González, who until recently was an unknown figure, have picked up on the discontent and represent a real electoral threat for Maduro. The question remains whether the president would willingly walk out of Miraflores Palace in the event of a defeat. There are 24 days left until the vote, but the answer to that question is on everyone’s minds from this very moment.

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