Venezuela

Venezuela opposition gears up despite no congressional election date

In this Thursday, May 7, 2015 photo, Rafael Rico canvasses a neighborhood in Isla Margarita, Venezulea. Last year Rico was covering his baby face with a vinegar-soaked rag and dodging tear gas canisters as he clashed with Venezuelan riot police, now the 23-year-old engineering student is canvassing on the resort island of Margarita as he campaigns to represent the South American countryís opposition coalition in upcoming legislative elections.
In this Thursday, May 7, 2015 photo, Rafael Rico canvasses a neighborhood in Isla Margarita, Venezulea. Last year Rico was covering his baby face with a vinegar-soaked rag and dodging tear gas canisters as he clashed with Venezuelan riot police, now the 23-year-old engineering student is canvassing on the resort island of Margarita as he campaigns to represent the South American countryís opposition coalition in upcoming legislative elections. AP

Venezuela’s coalition of opposition parties is holding primaries on Sunday in hopes of forming a common front to win majority control of the legislature for the first time in more than a decade. There’s just one problem: No one knows when the National Assembly election will be held.

In Venezuela, where basic facts are often shrouded in mystery, the current parlor game is trying to figure out when the government will call elections.

Early this week, National Electoral Council President Tibisay Lucena provided a hint. She said they would happen “sometime in the final quarter” and promised to provide an exact date…someday.

Jose Luis Cartaya, the president of the opposition’s primary commission, said he can’t recall a time when parties were forced to gear up for elections with no clear target.

“It’s very difficult to speculate why this is happening,” he said. “I don’t know why they won’t announce a date and lift the uncertainty and anxiety they’re creating, which has absolutely no justification.”

Xavier Rodriguez, with the legislative watchdog group Entorno Parlamentario, said the government seems to have fallen into a pattern of informality: Officials keep their jobs longer than mandated by law, annual publications simply don’t appear and now the electoral calendar is shrouded in mystery.

Because campaign windows are also established by the electoral council, the uncertainty runs deep, he said.

“This restricts political parties’ ability to coordinate logistics and organize,” he said. “In that sense, not having an electoral calendar is a direct aggression against the quality of our democracy.”

The ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) may have reason to be gun-shy. A train of troubles, from rocketing inflation, food shortages and rampant crime have soured the electorate and many pollsters expect the opposition to make serious gains and, just perhaps, control Congress.

Under that scenario, President Nicolás Maduro’s policies might see real debate and the legislature might reclaim its rights to audit and limit executive power.

In 2014, the speculation had been that the elections would be sooner this year rather than later. But falling crude prices have cut into popular social projects that are part of the PSUV’s traditional get-out-the-vote machine.

In March, Ernesto Samper, the head of the Union of South American Nations, said he’d been told by Venezuelan officials that the election would be held in September. But the government quickly shut him down.

The secrecy has fueled ugly rumors.

“There are a lot of people who doubt we’ll have the election at all,” said Manuel Guevara, the technical coordinator for the opposition coalition, “because all the scenarios point to the same conclusion: that the government is going to lose the election.”

Maduro doesn’t seem to buy those scenarios. He’s repeatedly claimed that his foes will take a drubbing at the polls.

“We’re expecting the worst from the battered opposition,” he said recently. “And we’re preparing ourselves to neutralize them.”

National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello, also of the ruling party, has said the opposition is entering the race so weak and divided that it’s relying on “generating violence” to strengthen its position.

The PSUV is expected to hold its primaries in late June.

The opposition coalition of 29 parties, known as the MUD, comes into the race with a string of defeats. In the last four years, it has lost as many races: two presidential votes (including a tight and contested race against Maduro in 2013), a governor’s race where it won only three seats, and a municipal election where it lost the popular vote.

In the upcoming election, there will be 167 congressional seats up for grabs. To seize them, the MUD hopes to select a single candidate for each spot to keep from dividing the vote.

However, Sunday’s primaries are only being held in 33 out of 87 electoral districts, as the other spots have been chosen by consensus or default, the organization said. The partial nature of the vote is a black-mark for the opposition and has opened it up to charges of cronyism.

Sunday’s vote could have been more open and inclusive, Rodriguez said. “This would have been the opportunity for different sectors of the electorate, including disaffected Chavsitas, to have a chance to participate,” he added.

The coalition claims its bringing fresh, representative faces to the race. Of the 109 candidates in the primary, 57 percent are younger than 50 and 30 percent are younger than 40.

“We’re certain that we’ll control a majority in the National Assembly,” Cartaya predicted. “And it’s going to be the beginning of the end for this crisis of insecurity, unemployment and shortages.”

Many suspect the government will call a snap election at a time when it’s most advantageous for the ruling party. But it’s unclear when that might be.

“If they’re waiting for more favorable winds,” Cartaya said, “then they’re never going to give us a date.”

Miami Herald Andean Correspondent Jim Wyss is based in Bogotá, Colombia. Follow him on Twitter: @jimwyss

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