The bulk of Venezuela’s opposition said it will participate in upcoming regional elections, even though it accuses the government of being a “dictatorship” and the vote of being little more than a sham.
But the controversial decision to face the socialist administration at the polls — after months of deadly street protests — appeared to be driving wedges in the opposition and sparked at least one high-profile desertion.
In a series of statements, the opposition — a coalition of parties known as the MUD — said it would have candidates participate in gubernatorial and state legislative races that are scheduled for Dec. 10. The National Electoral Council has said it will approve those applications on Saturday.
But the group has long been divided over whether it should take part in an electoral process it says is inherently unfair and risks giving the authoritarian administration a veneer of democracy.
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On Thursday, María Corina Machado, an outspoken administration critic and head of the Vente Venezuela political movement, drove that point home, saying the MUD was playing into the government’s hands and helping “normalize” a “dictatorship.”
She said her group would not be “falling into the trap of regional elections” and would be withdrawing from the coalition.
On Wednesday, Andrés Velásquez, a MUD spokesman, said the coalition’s “objective remains the same: to shed this dictatorship as soon as possible.”
And while the MUD said it will continue street protests that have dragged on for four months and left 120 dead, the very act of facing an authoritarian government at the polls was “an act of subversion,” Velásquez said.
Voluntad Popular, the political organization headed by Leopoldo López, who is under house arrest, said that the elections were a “distraction” from the primary goal of cutting Maduro’s term short. But it said it had agreed to field candidates, including political prisoners, “in a clear message of resistance, solidarity and as a permanent reminder that we are living under a dictatorship.”
The as-yet-unannounced candidates are already facing headwinds. The National Electoral Council is barring the MUD from participating in seven of the 23 state races, citing ongoing legal cases. And government hard-liner Diosdado Cabello, a member of the Constituent Assembly, has said the new body will have the power to veto individual candidates.
The election of 23 governors and hundreds of state legislators was supposed to have taken place in 2016 but was delayed amid suspicions that the socialist government wanted to avoid the ballot box due to low approval ratings and a crushing economic crisis.
Maduro has accused the opposition of fomenting a coup, and has jailed several national and local leaders for their involvement in ongoing protests.
This week alone, the courts sentenced Ramon Muchacho and David Smolansky, the opposition mayors of Chacao and El Hatillo, both part of greater Caracas, to 15 months in prison and barred them from elected office.
Also this year, the government banned the opposition governors Henrique Capriles and Liborio Guarulla, of Miranda and Amazonas states, from holding office, although both men continue to lead their states.
The elections come as Washington has been ratcheting up pressure on Venezuela, slapping more than two dozen officials, including Maduro, with sanctions in recent weeks.
Follow Jim Wyss on Twitter @jimwyss