Venezuela on the brink — again

Lilian Tintori, wife of jailed opposition leader Leopoldo López, greets supporters at a campaign rally in Caracas.
Lilian Tintori, wife of jailed opposition leader Leopoldo López, greets supporters at a campaign rally in Caracas. AP

Although President Nicolás Maduro and his cronies in Miraflores Palace have done everything in their power to rig Sunday’s National Assembly elections in Venezuela, all signs point to a huge defeat for the government.

To judge from opinion surveys, the outcome of the vote is foreordained: The opposition coalition, the Democratic Unity Roundtable, leads the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela and its allies by as much as 35 percentage points. Mr. Maduro’s own popularity has been hovering around 20 percent.

The electorate is fed up with rampant crime, a corrupt government and consumer shortages of everything from ketchup to diapers. Even onetime supporters are disgusted by the government’s incompetence. Anywhere else, this would spell the end for a ruling party. But under Mr. Maduro and the late Hugo Chávez, Venezuela long ago became a crypto-dictatorship determined to stay in power at all costs.

Facing long odds, Mr. Maduro’s forces have mounted a campaign of unprecedented ferocity to thwart the opposition.

▪ They have resorted to the use of confusing ballots, gerrymandered districts and complete control of both the news media and the electoral mechanism.

▪ They have banned at least seven opposition figures from taking part in the election over allegations of corruption or conspiring to overthrow the government. That includes popular former lawmaker and candidate María Corina Machado.

▪ Further, the opposition claims, the state is holding 75 other anti-government leaders as “political prisoners.” The most prominent, Leopoldo López, was sentenced to nearly 14 years in September following a kangaroo court trial condemned by human-rights groups and the United Nations.

▪ Last week, the assassination of Luis Díaz, 44, a candidate for the Democratic Action party, drew a fresh round of international criticism and a call by the United Nations for the government to ensure the safety of political opponents. The government has denied any role in the killing and announced Tuesday that it had arrested three suspects, but offered no details.

Yet after all that, Mr. Maduro and his allies are still staring at defeat. This is the closest that the challengers to the so-called “Bolivarian Revolution” have been to victory in 16 years. Even so, no one should underestimate the government’s ruthlessness. Venezuela’s elections are neither free nor fair, and this one is unlikely to be an exception.

Fortunately, some pro-democracy forces in the region have finally decided to challenge the abuses. Luis Almagro, secretary-general of the Organization of American States, wrote an open letter, widely publicized in Latin America, blaming the government for failure to ensure a fair election.

In Argentina, President-elect Mauricio Macri has asked the regional group known as Mercosur to sanction Venezuela for its one-sided elections, and possibly expel it from the organization if the government resorts to fraud or violence to remain in power.

Where are the other pro-democracy voices in Latin America? In this decisive moment, heads of state throughout the region, in particular, have a responsibility to speak up by demanding that the government recognize any clear victory by the opposition.

In the past, the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile and the Fujimori dictatorship in Peru were ousted by peaceful means by a fed-up electorate. The people of Venezuela are poised to do the same.