Venezuela’s D-Day: Between Civic Celebration and Worsening Conflict

After years of boycotting elections, Venezuela’s opposition has united behind a presidential candidate. The result of the July 28 vote could give way to stability—or still deeper polarization.

June 17, 2024

The National Electoral Council (CNE), Caracas, Venezuela. (Victor Bujosa Michelli / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Leer este artículo en español.

An intense civic and democratic “fiesta” is underway in Venezuela. On July 28, Venezuelans will head to the polls to elect the president for the next six years. Radical actors on both sides of the historical dispute between Chavismo and the opposition have accepted a democratic and electoral means to resolve their political conflicts, rushing up and down the country to promote their respective candidates.

All parties and sectors, without exception, are betting on an electoral solution, which has not happened since the opposition ramped up its insurrectional strategy of refusing to recognize the sitting government and calling for foreign intervention in 2017. This opposition position catalyzed calls for a boycott of the presidential elections in 2018 as well as the formation of a parallel interim government in 2019, recognized by Washington and its allies, which dispatched from Caracas up until it dissolved last year.

The ruling party, for its part, from 2017 to 2023, disqualified several opposition leaders from participating in elections and intervened via the Supreme Court in the main opposition parties. These actions affected the historical parties Acción Democrática and Copei and other large opposition parties, such as Primero Justicia and Voluntad Popular, as well as the Communist Party of Venezuela (PCV), which, though Chavista, takes a line against the current government. Dozens of opposition activists have also been arrested.

Although violent events in Venezuela over the last seven years were limited and never spilled over into generalized violence—as happened in Colombia in the last 60 years or in 20th-century Central America and the Southern Cone, with thousands of dead and disappeared—the cascade of misfortunes caused by both political poles represent a radical and agonizing dispute, amplified by the international media. With the 2024 electoral cycle, the country appears to be overcoming this situation.

Since the registration of candidates wrapped up at the end of March, a great citizen celebration has been taking place that has not yet done away with the big question: are we witnessing a lasting democratic environment, or a temporary scenario that will soon give way to internal and external threats?

The electoral campaign is accompanied by an economic resurgence in the country, which according to the International Monetary Fund will reach the highest growth in the region this year with 4 percent. At the same time, there is a sense of public security that has not been felt in in the last 50 years. But there is also a worsening of the electricity crisis and a general fading of the welfare state, especially in terms of education, health, and employment.

Beyond the current socioeconomic improvement, however, an immense charged cloud hangs over this election, threatening to wash away everything in its path. Anything could happen between now and July 28, a new D-Day for Venezuelans.

Uncertainty as November 5 Looms

While the unknowns of this election cycle remain pending, the different political camps, represented by a total of 10 presidential candidates, move through Venezuela’s towns and streets, even sometimes through the fiefdoms of their political adversaries, without violent acts to report.

Even the verbal aggression has been subsiding: insults like “narco-genocidaire,” widely used among opposition leaders, or “terrorist,” from the government side, are for the moment not being hurled, even as the fight to win the streets heats up.

The Unitary Platform (PU), a conglomerate bringing together the main opposition parties and currents from the moderate to the extreme right, has selected Edmundo González as its candidate. A 74-year-old diplomat backed by a consensus between all sectors of the institutional opposition, González attends rallies and television programs, like any other candidate, even though many predicted that the government would not allow any PU candidate to run.

With a more moderate candidate, represented in González, the opposition’s language today is much less revanchist than in the past, as is that of the ruling party.

Yet as the campaign unfolds, U.S. sanctions and criminal charges against incumbent candidate President Nicolás Maduro and other officials remain in force, casting a shadow over the democratic race. The minimal progress toward the deactivation of sanctions as a result of negotiations both between the ruling party and the opposition, such as those in Barbados and Mexico, and between Washington and Caracas, such as that in Doha, could lead the Venezuelan government to take new decisions regarding the elections. Such actions could include last-minute disqualifications, the cancellation of official status of parties that support González, or the closure of voting centers in places where violence has occurred, forcing voters to cast their ballots in remote areas, as happened in 2017.

The decision by the National Electoral Council (CNE) on May 29 to revoke the invitation to the European Union to observe the elections came after Brussels confirmed a sanctions scheme on May 13. Although the EU excluded the CNE’s current president, Elvis Amoroso, from the list of those sanctioned, the electoral body considered that the upholding of the sanction regime is an impediment to a European commission participating as an observer in the vote. The Carter Center, on the other hand, remains on the list of CNE-approved observers and has confirmed its participation.

Additionally, as the U.S. presidential campaign progresses, and the possibility of former president Donald Trump returning to the White House approaches, expectations of a happy ending in Venezuela remain in suspense. A Trump victory on November 5 could mean the return of an atmosphere of revanchist opposition, as happened during the violent uprisings of 2017 and 2019. These actions included the attempted military coup of April 30, 2019, publicly directed by the White House’s special envoy for Venezuela, Elliott Abrams, and lauded by international media.

It was Trump who, together with Republican officials, designed the strict sanction scheme against Venezuela. He also gave the green light to a push for rupture, putting the possibility of a U.S. invasion on the table. Venezuelan far-right groups and parties understood that, with Trump in the presidential office, it was time to wipe the slate clean with respect to Chavismo. This impulse reached peak convulsion in 2017 with the lynching and burning of people just for belonging to the government or a Chavista movement.

Each new call for insurrection prompts a repeat of far-right actions. The most serious thing about these violent events is that the opposition leadership, far from rejecting such acts, prefers to treat them passively or with a threatening tone, since outright objecting to them would mean opening themselves up to harassment and insults by these groups, who hold enormous financial and media power and many of whose members reside in Miami and elsewhere abroad. These groups characterize any moderate opposition leader who opposes the actions of the radical right as “surrenderers” (entreguistas) and “collaborators” (colaboracionistas).

Thus, the prospect of an opposition victory in Venezuela, where these sectors promote a vendetta and persecution, combined with a parallel Trump victory in the United States, could produce a short circuit that opens up new scenarios, even civil war.

On the other hand, given the firm participation of the opposition in these presidential elections, the government faces a scenario that it has not experienced since its defeat in the 2015 legislative elections, the last time the opposition fully participated. The high price of an adverse result—such as the handing over of current government officials to the United States or the persecution of current officials’ relatives—could lead the ruling party to refuse to recognize the results or trigger a repressive state response.

Obviously, under these risks posed by the ongoing sanctions, it’s difficult to imagine that the current government, in the event of an electoral loss, will hand over political power without guarantees to protect the lives of its officials and their families and to ensure their ability to continue to participate freely in national politics. From this perspective, a victory for the opposition, led by María Corina Machado, who initially won the opposition’s presidential primary but is disqualified from running as a candidate, could mark the beginning of a much larger conflict. We must consider that the Armed Forces are among the actors most criminalized and targeted by the radical opposition, and several officials within their ranks face sanctions from Washington and Brussels.

Despite being disqualified, Machado has continued campaigning for González and has managed to permeate social sectors and territories once fiefdoms of Chavismo.

The Electoral Process

Hypothetical extra-institutional scenarios aside, the electoral race is prospering. The contenders are fighting for every vote, and the dispute really appears even.

On the one hand, an opposition strategy that underestimates the electoral forces of Chavismo would be naive. First, because Chavismo benefits from the “actually existing” electoral roll that remains after the massive cohort of migration. Second, because Chavismo enjoys strong territorial power and electoral machinery. And, third, because the opposition could face multiple endorsement problems.

Yet, on the other hand, in general terms, it does not seem to be a good time for Chavismo.

Maduro won the 2018 presidential elections with 6.24 million votes but amid an abstention rate of 54 percent, and a lot has happened since then. In the 2021 regional elections, the government coalition dropped from the 5.81 million votes it had received in the 2017 regional elections to 3.59 million votes, nearly 40 percent less.

That decreased 2021 level of support, however, is still much higher than the 2.25 million votes Machado achieved in the opposition primaries in November 2023. Although these two events are dissimilar, comparing their figures allows us to consider scenarios where the results of the presidential race are close. Nothing is predetermined at this moment.

Opposition Widens Chances at Victory

The opposition, for its part, has managed to overcome many obstacles. The first is one that the opposition itself has forged: abstentionism. After several years of calling voters to boycott the polls, the opposition now has to encourage supports to cast their ballots in a complex competition.

To the opposition’s advantage, the polls—both those close to the government and to the opposition—predict a high intention to vote. According to Datanálisis, a pollster historically close to the opposition, the latest surveys show that between 70 and 75 percent will turn out to vote. The competition pollster, Hintelaces, close to the government, places participation at 81 percent, a figure that has climbed by 3 percentage points each month since March. This scenario of high participation could work against the government, which won the last elections by mobilizing its solid loyal base but has not since been able to attract new support, such as among young people.

Another obstacle the opposition has overcome is its internal divisions, as all the political sectors making up the PU have united around González’s candidacy. Furthermore, the other eight candidates in the race aside from González and Maduro have not shown strength in the polls. This election seems to be marked—if there are no surprises—by polarization, as has classically been the case in the country’s elections, leaving no viable alternatives.

The greatest current risk to González’s candidacy is whether he wins the endorsement of the “anti-Maduro” vote. The diplomat is very unknown in the political arena. Although he holds significant rallies, due to his age and condition, he has not produced much activity in his crusade. Furthermore, this campaign cycle is unusually short—presidential elections are usually held in December with a pre-campaign carried out in the prior January, whereas this year the elections are scheduled at the end of July and the opposition candidate was only chosen at the end of March.

But the biggest issue that González faces is that support for other opposition leaders—especially Machado, who is holding enthusiastic events throughout the country—will not automatically translate into votes for him. This is a variable that will be tested on election day.

The polls offer somewhat disparate data when it comes to projecting who is ahead. Datanálisis says that between 40 and 50 percent of voters intend to vote for González while Hintelaces reports that 59 percent of those polled believe Maduro will win the elections.

The two pollsters ask two different questions: one tries to find out who the respondent is going to vote for, and the other asks who they think will win. These produce two different responses: strong intention to vote for González, and a majority belief that Maduro will be the victor. These dissimilar responses help us to understand, on the one hand, the heft of the political power that sustains Chavismo—those surveyed do not believe that Maduro will leave power—and, on the other, the degree of support enjoyed by the opposition candidate, even though he is relatively unknown.

More important, therefore, than what happens on July 28 is what will happen the following day. The day after the vote, Venezuela’s future will be sealed. If the actors involved begin to see themselves as adversaries and no longer as enemies, complying with the Barbados accords—signed in October 2023 to establish general guidelines for the presidential elections to be held—and thus advancing the dialogue in which so much time has been invested, then we will be entering a stage of stability.

However, if one of the two sides do not recognize the result of the election, or the vote counts are proven to be falsified, that could mean the beginning of a prolonged conflict that could end in a scenario much worse than what has been seen in recent Venezuelan history and edges closer to the turbulent pasts of Colombia, Central America, or the Southern Cone.

Translated from Spanish by NACLA.

Ociel Alí López is a sociologist and winner of the CLACS-SIDA award for young researchers and the Caracas municipal literature award. He is a professor at the Central University of Venezuela and writes about Latin America.

Like this article? Support our work. Donate now.