Venezuela elections: Why dictators love democracy’s ‘passing aroma’


Venezuela’s opposition will make a return to the ballot box on Sunday, putting up candidates in gubernatorial and mayoral races across the country, an about-face they say is meant to rally a disillusioned electorate ahead of a future presidential vote, which should legally take place in 2024. The conditions — while nominally better than in past years, according to the nonpartisan Venezuelan Electoral Observatory — are far from freely democratic, and the shift is a gamble for the opposition, The Times reports:

[Nicolas] Maduro, who faces both economic sanctions and an investigation in the International Criminal Court, is hungry for democratic legitimacy, and he is likely to use the election to push the United States and the European Union to ease their positions against him….the Venezuelan Electoral Observatory said that while the government had allowed a broader spectrum of participation in this election than in past years, it continued to “restrict full freedom to exercise suffrage” in myriad ways, among them the illegal use of public funds to campaign for the ruling party.

The proliferation of autocrats who love to stage presidential elections is a surprising political phenomenon, notes analyst Moises Naim. Of course, we’re not talking about free and fair elections that a dictator might lose. Oh no, he writes for El Pais. What they want is an exercise that gives off the illusion – or at least the passing aroma – of democracy, but where their victory is securely guaranteed.

Venezuela is a case of ‘competitive authoritarianism’ in which regimes organize elections which the opposition has no way of winning as a source of ersatz legitimacy, thereby “weakening and co-opting the liberal dimension of democracy,” says a new report, La salud de la 
democracia en Venezuela: Elecciones del 21N y su impacto en la frontera (The health of democracy in Venezuela: N21 elections and their impact on the border – see above), from the Colombia-based Fundación Paz & Reconciliación (Peace and Reconciliation Foundation – Pares). In the midst of this, the regime’s institutional advantage, the presence of the international community, as well as the opening of the border between Venezuela and Colombia, raise serious concerns, adds the report, funded by the National Endowment for Democracy (NED).

Although the main opposition Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) coalition has agreed to run, it still insisted the elections “won’t be fair or conventional” due to “serious obstacles” placed by the government. There is also a lack of unity amongst opposition ranks. Opposition leader Juan Guaido has not spoken openly in support or against participation, AFP reports.

Abstention is “an error,” said David Uzcátegui of Miranda State, who is among the candidates running this year. “The vote is an instrument you can fight with,” he told The Times.

Credit: OEV

Last month a former presidential candidate, Henrique Capriles, blasted the “deadly” divisions in the opposition and urged the various factions to settle their differences and support the best-placed candidates, AFP adds. A united opposition defeated the government in 2015, he pointed out. But that call has fallen mostly on deaf ears.

No one should be fooled that Sunday’s municipal and provincial elections in Venezuela signal a return to democracy for the impoverished South American country, writes Bloomberg’s Eli Lake. While some opposition politicians will be on the ballot, others have been arrested by the regime. Most of the country’s powerful institutions, from the courts to the banks, are under the control of his loyalists. And in recent years, the state has used food rations and other benefits to coerce the political allegiance of its citizens.

Given such conditions, one might think that election observers would sit this one out. But the European Union’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell plans to send them anyway, despite warnings from his staff that an official delegation to observe the elections would give Maduro’s regime unearned democratic legitimacy, Lake adds.


Borrell’s policies “have been uncoordinated with his own staff or the United States or the major European capitals,” said Elliott Abrams, who served a former special representative for Venezuela. “They have done great damage to the opposition in Venezuela.”

It’s not the first time for Borrell, Lake adds. In the summer of 2020, Borrell supported Venezuelan opposition politician Henrique Capriles’s decision to negotiate on his own with the Maduro regime. This was a surprise to the U.S. government, added Abrams. He later learned from interlocutors in the Netherlands, Germany and France that they too were unaware of Borrell’s decision to support Capriles’s negotiations. RTWT

But as the parties built their lists of gubernatorial and mayoral candidates for Sunday’s elections, women were largely left out, The Washington Post adds. Of the 182 candidates running in gubernatorial or mayoral races in capital cities, only 30 are women, according to an analysis of preliminary candidate lists by independent Venezuelan news site Efecto Cocuyo.

“There’s a huge disappointment in Venezuela over the candidates,” said Natalia Brandler, president of the women’s rights group Asociación Cauce. Elevating women and younger candidates, she said, “would bring fresh air to the elections, a kind of renewal.”

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