A month before Venezuela's controversial and questionable presidential race, debate is raging around a critical issue: Will the opposition even bother to put up a fight at the ballot box?
That answer to that question will determine the fate of the troubled South American nation, where President Nicolás Maduro is hoping to win a new six-year term on May 20, despite being widely reviled.
For months, surveys have shown that Venezuelan’s opposition voters are so despondent and have so little faith in the political system that they’ll skip the presidential race — letting Maduro keep the keys to the Miraflores presidential palace without even having to engage in additional dirty tricks or fraud.
And a prominent faction of the opposition is promoting an outright boycott of the vote.
But a new poll suggests there’s still a core group of voters who believe that elections are their only option, and that’s giving hope to supporters of Henri Falcón, a dark-horse opposition candidate who many view with suspicion.
A recent poll by Venezuela’s Datincorp found that 61 percent of those surveyed said they would vote in the election, up from 51 percent in February. The survey of 1,198 people has a margin of error of 2.8 percent. But it also underscores just how torn voters are.
In a question directed only at those who identified themselves as members of the opposition or independent, 56 percent said it wasn’t worth voting because the government would win “through dirty tricks and fraud.” But 63 percent thought that if they didn’t vote, they were guaranteeing Maduro another six-year term.
“Venezuelans are in a complete state of confusion and are rudderless,” said Datincorp President Jesús Seguías.
Complicating the scenario is a contradictory poll released this week by Meganalisis that found just 21 percent of the population said they'd be willing to vote — virtually guaranteeing a Maduro landslide.
The choice to abstain from voting is being promoted by factions of the opposition that are convinced Maduro will cling to power at all costs, and that the vote is a sham.
“In order to have elections, we have to get rid of the dictatorship first,” Antonio Ledezma, the former mayor of Caracas who is living in exile, said at an opposition rally in Peru recently. “You have to be very naïve to think that Nicolás Maduro would allow free elections.”
In Ledezma’s telling, Falcón’s real role is to legitimize a process that everyone knows is flawed beyond redemption.
“The government was looking for a fig leaf,” Ledezma said, “and they found one in [Falcón], the former governor of Lara state.”
A one-time government loyalist turned dissident, Falcón has adopted many of the opposition’s positions. He’s promising to free political prisoners, curb hyperinflation by dollarizing the economy, return expropriated businesses and woo foreign investment.
And he denies he's being used by Maduro to give the elections a sheen of legitimacy.
"Choosing to fight despite unfair rules does not legitimize the rules: It confirms our willingness to defend our rights," Falcón told the Miami Herald last month. "An electoral boycott has never toppled a government."
Datincorp’s poll, taken on April 9, has Falcón winning the race with 34 percent of the vote versus Maduro’s 22 percent. A recent poll by the closely watched firm Datanalisis also shows Falcón with a six point lead, according to media reports.
Even so, Meganalisis shows him losing badly with 6.2 percent of the vote versus Maduro's 15.3 percent.
The difference between winning and losing, the polls argue, is the turnout. And Meganalisis believes the opposition would rather stay home than vote for a man many consider a Judas.
While Maduro has put some of his most powerful rivals behind bars or barred them from running, the government has opened the doors for Falcón, making him suspect in the eyes of many.
Between those suspicions, and the broader calls for a boycott, Maduro may be a shoo-in, despite having rock-bottom approval ratings of near 25 percent, Seguías acknowledged.
A recent analysis by Datincorp estimated that of the 20 million people on the voter rolls, three million have fled the country in recent years escaping the economic collapse. An additional four million have never voted. That leaves about 7.5 million opposition votes and 5.5 million chavista, or pro-government votes, in play.
“If only half the opposition votes, and all the chavistas vote, Nicolás Maduro will win without having to resort to fraud,” Datincorp said.
If that happened, it would be challenging for the international community to decry an election that was lost due to a boycott — and not outright vote theft, Seguías said.
After all, President Donald Trump recently congratulated Russia’s Vladimir Putin for winning reelection in a race that many say was deeply flawed and unfair. “That’s international realpolitik in action," Seguías said.
The tense election comes as the international community is increasingly hostile to the Maduro camp. The United States, Canada, the European Union, Switzerland and Panama have all slapped the nation with sanctions.
And during the Summit of the Americas in Peru last week, more than a dozen countries in the Western Hemisphere said they wouldn’t recognize the election results unless Maduro freed political prisoners and allowed all political parties to participate.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who was also at the summit, said Maduro’s intimidation tactics — including using food and medicine to buy loyalty in a desperate country — have turned the elections into a farce.
“These are not free and democratic elections by any standard and they shouldn’t be recognized as such,” Rubio said. “It’s just an effort by Nicolás Maduro to stay in power and to try to change the subject and confuse people. But nobody is confused, not in the region and not in Venezuela.”
Seguías argues that voters are clear-eyed about how hard it will be to dislodge Maduro from power at the ballot box, but he says they also know they have few other options.
They’re not willing to risk their lives in street protests, they’re tired of waiting for the military to do something, and "they know that the United States isn’t preparing an invasion,” he said.
Seguías puts himself in the shoes of a family at home on Election Day with no food on the table and no hope for change.
“They see [the vote] as a process where they can reject Nicolás Maduro,” he said, “and it won’t cost them anything because they don’t have anything left to lose.”