Just 15 days ago, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro was on the ropes, battered by huge street protests and facing discontent within his own ranks and possible economic sanctions amid signs that he had formally turned into a dictator.
But Maduro now appears to be well positioned to overcome the worst crisis of his presidency, after performing a kind of political jujitsu that turned the opposition's strength in numbers into a potential weakness.
The decision by the main opposition parties to participate in regional elections in October has pumped fresh oxygen into the regime by cooling down the street protests, dividing the opposition and clearing a way for Maduro to recover at least part of his lost legitimacy, analysts said.
The controversial decision by opposition coalition Mesa de la Unidad Democratica (MUD) “radically changed the scene in Venezuela,” said Oscar Vallés, head of the political studies department at the Universidad Metropolitana de Caracas.
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“It has really diverted the attention of parts of the opposition and generated at its heart a clear and evident split, not just in opinions but a profound division over what must be done to confront the dictatorship amid this progressive dismantling of institutions that we Venezuelans are experiencing,” Vallés said from Caracas.
That was precisely one of the main goals of the Maduro regime, “to distract and divert the opposition,” said Vallés.
During the street protests against the Maduro regime over the past month, the opposition regularly drew more than 400,000 people. But at the last protest at the Altamira Plaza, an opposition redoubt, turnout barely reached 500.
MUD's biggest problem is that it lacks the discipline needed to confront a dictatorial regime ruled by criminal factions that have become super-wealthy through corruption and drug trafficking, analysts said.
MUD is essentially a machine built to compete in elections. That's what it knows how to do and that's what it feels most comfortable doing, the analysts added.
“The problem is that [MUD members] … don't have the political education or ethics needed to take on the challenge. So they do what they are used to doing,” said Vallés.
He added that one of the key shortcomings of the opposition is that it seems to lack the capacity to design effective strategies for fighting against a regime not likely to allow itself to be defeated in an election.
“They do not talk in depth about the kinds of country we want. They are simply electoral machines, and they can only talk about techniques for electoral marketing,” Vallés said. “So it's not an issue of treason. They do not have the political education or vision that the country requires.”
The frustrations created by MUD's decision to run in October elections are broad, said Marcos Hernández López, president of the polling firm Hercón Consultores.
The firm is currently putting the finishing touches on a poll of opposition supporters. The results are to be announced next week, but an early estimate shows that 51 percent of those polled do not want to participate in the October balloting, Hernandez said.
“Fifty-one percent opposes the decision taken by MUD. They say that does not match the opposition's refusal to participate in the election [last month] for a National Constituent Assembly, which they themselves denounced as fraudulent,” said the pollster.
“People are growing more frustrated, and that's what the government is taking advantage of,” he added.
Even if the 51 percent number changes by next week — it's a preliminary figure — it is high enough to indicate that MUD has a major problem in its hands.
MUD's preference for elections appears to be well understood by the Maduro government. Polls put Maduro’s popularity at 15 percent, yet he has urged the opposition to take part in the balloting in order to recover part of his legitimacy.
MUD agreed, even though just two weeks earlier it had declared that Maduro had just committed the biggest fraud in modern electoral history by tripling the number of voters who turned out for the Constituent Assembly elections.
The opposition alliance argued that it did not want to surrender political space to the government, claiming that it might be able to win some governors' seats because of Maduro's low popularity — even though he firmly controls the National Electoral Council.
That simply does not make sense, said José Antonio Colina, an opposition activist who lives in Miami.
“It makes no sense to take part in an election under the same referee, and now under a Constituent Assembly that can do whatever it wants and which has been … firing, jailing and persecuting all opposition officials elected by the people,” said Colina.
“With their decision, the leaders of the opposition are entering into a process of cohabitation and submission in the face of a dictatorial regime,” he added.
At least two leading politicians — María Corina Machado and Antonio Ledezma — have said they will not go along with MUD's decision .
Machado said her Vente Venezuela Party is “distancing itself from the path that part of MUD has decided to follow, which validates the mafia-like dictatorship by participating in its rigged elections,” Machado told a news conference.
“I humbly ask all political parties to reverse this decision,” she added.
“Listen to the people of Venezuela, who are sending a message today with the empty streets.”
The electoral option appears to have removed one of the key pressure points that the opposition had been using in recent weeks to corner Maduro, even though the massive street protests have left more than 100 dead and several hundred injured.
Pressure from the streets has been essential for toppling dictatorial regimes around the world, Vallés said. But the protests in Venezuela should be focused more on social issues, such as the shortages of food and medicine, and not be led only by leaders of political parties, he added.
The strategy should be “to bring together the masses, focused on fundamental shortages that are felt everywhere and not just abstract values like freedom of expression and constitutional principles,” said Vallés. “Those are clearly very important but the poor people don't feel that. What they feel is hunger. What they feel is that they can only feed their children twice a day, and that there are some children who don't even know if they can return to school in September because their parents have nothing to feed them.”
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