Venezuela blocks top opposition's nominee for president

Machado's approved successor prevented from candidacy

machado Venezuelan opposition leader Maria Corina Machado speaks during a press conference at her party headquarters in Caracas | AFP

The path to Venezuela's pivotal July 28th presidential elections has descended into chaos and crisis. Observers charge that the authoritarian Nicolás Maduro regime doubled down on undemocratic tactics to kneecap the beleaguered opposition. In a race that will shape the future of this once prosperous nation, they say President Maduro appears determined to deny Venezuelan voters a true choice at the ballot box.

At the midnight deadline on Monday for registering candidates, the regime blocked the main opposition coalition's nominee, lawyer Corina Yoris, from formalising her candidacy.

María Corina Machado had emerged as the opposition's leading candidate and choice to challenge incumbent Nicolás Maduro in July's presidential vote. However, in a move typical of efforts to sideline dissenting voices, Machado was banned from being able to run for president.

With Machado functionally eliminated from the race as the opposition candidate, she hand-picked octogenarian lawyer Corina Yoris as a replacement nominee to represent their interests.

But in the chaotic final hours before the registration deadline, authorities doubled down and prevented Yoris from submitting her paperwork as well, leaving the fumbling opposition without a unified presidential candidate at this late stage.

In dramatic scenes caught by international media, Yoris and her team were physically barred from entering the national electoral council's offices to submit her paperwork.

The last hours before the deadline for registering presidential candidates were tense and chaotic, said Caracas attorney A. Alvarez, speaking exclusively to THE WEEK.

The National Electoral Council (CNE), which oversees elections in the country, appeared to be clumsily manipulating its automated candidate registration system for political purposes. Parties were blocked from registering and then suddenly readmitted, with the CNE citing vague "technical failures" as the reason.

However, international and opposition observers viewed these issues as an intentional "political game" by the electoral authorities to prevent any candidates from joining the race who could pose a legitimate threat to incumbent President Maduro.

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Despite Maduro's very low approval rating of just 20 per cent among Venezuelans, the CNE's actions seemed calculated to forestall the possibility that he could lose the July 28th presidential election, said a Caracas oil executive speaking on the condition of anonymity.

While the unpopular Maduro strolled in on a literal red carpet to register his candidacy, the main opposition bloc found itself high and dry by the arbitrary ruling. "Polls show the unpopular Maduro would be trounced by a landslide if Venezuelan voters were given half a chance," noted the AP.

However, in a potential eleventh-hour twist, electoral authorities claimed early on Tuesday that a "placeholder" spot had been reserved for the opposition. Whether this represents a genuine opening for negotiations or merely more obfuscation remains unclear.

The chaos has reinvigorated skepticism about the electoral process among regional powers. A group of seven Latin American nations issued a joint rebuke in which they say the regime's candidate blocking "raises more questions about the integrity and transparency of the whole electoral process."

Brazil, led by President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva who has taken a more accommodating stance toward the Maduro government, weighed in on the situation. In an official statement, his government declared that the decision by Venezuela's electoral authorities to block opposition candidates from registering is incompatible with the framework established by the Barbados accords.

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These accords refer to a series of negotiations held in Barbados that aimed to chart a path forward for freer and fairer elections in Venezuela, with the potential for sanctions relief as an incentive for the Maduro regime to permit genuine electoral competition.

With less than four months until Venezuelans go to the polls, the Venezuelan opposition now finds itself at a crossroads. It could coalesce around one of the handful of candidates who did register, such as former mayors Enrique Márquez or Manuel Rosales. Or it may fight to have the regime's supposed "placeholder" filled with a consensus opposition nominee.

But time is short, and the window for meaningful electoral competition is rapidly closing. "It is always worth making an authoritarian government play the election game because it can make mistakes," cautioned Tulane University’s Venezuela expert and senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America David Smilde. "A 'stunning election' result can generate a cascade of events that leads to a transition in spite of the incumbent government's efforts."

While authoritarian governments often seek to preserve power by election manipulation, there are strategic reasons why they may still go through the motions of holding a vote. Even severely flawed elections can lend a veneer of legitimacy on the international stage. And the theatrics of campaigning provide opportunities for the regime to make mistakes that galvanise the opposition.

A seemingly minor logistical failure or heavy-handed crackdown can sometimes spark outrage that catalyses wider protests and defections from the ruling party's ranks. The spectacle of citizens being denied a genuine choice at the ballot box has the potential to be a radicalising force. Dramatic electoral injustices have precipitated democratic transitions in other nations when they cross a line and widespread civil resistance is triggered.

So, while the Maduro government is widely expected to employ its full arsenal of techniques to sway the results, there are still strategic calculations at play. Overt vote-rigging or the outright cancellation of elections risks inflaming an already volatile situation. As such, the run-up to July's contest will be a delicate high-wire act as the regime works to deliver its predetermined outcome while maintaining a facade of legitimacy.

For the millions of Venezuelans devastated by years of economic collapse, political repression and humanitarian crisis under Chavismo, the July election represents a potential make-or-break moment. But as these farcical registration scenes demonstrated, Venezuelan democracy itself may be on the ballot as well.


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