Venezuela’s Opposition Splits Over Taking Part in Coming Elections

By Mariana Martínez and Anatoly Kurmanaev

Sanctions and boycotts have failed to bring down president Nicolás Maduro. Now some opposition leaders are ready to shift strategy and take him on at the ballot box, despite concerns about the vote’s fairness.

Iván Stalin González, an opposition lawmaker, broke this week with an opposition boycott of the upcoming congressional elections.
Iván Stalin González, an opposition lawmaker, broke this week with an opposition boycott of the upcoming congressional elections.Credit...Adriana Loureiro Fernandez for The New York Times

By Mariana Martínez and

CARACAS, Venezuela — Since joining forces last year, Venezuela’s fractious opposition has tried protests and strikes, and encouraged international sanctions, amnesty offers and a coup. It even considered a mercenary invasion to try to unseat President Nicolás Maduro.

All have failed, leaving opponents of the increasingly repressive Mr. Maduro hounded and demoralized, and the once-wealthy oil nation sinking further into ruin.

Now, two Venezuelan opposition leaders are sacrificing their parties’ hard-won unity to try to break the political deadlock and salvage their movement from oblivion. At stake is the survival of the last vestiges of democracy in a country sliding toward militarized, one-party rule.

Henrique Capriles, a former presidential candidate, and Iván Stalin González, a prominent opposition lawmaker, publicly broke last week with an opposition boycott of the coming congressional elections, fracturing an already strained alliance.

The news immediately provoked a flood of thinly veiled accusations of treachery from boycott supporters and their American allies, and soul-searching among the vast majority of Venezuelans who oppose Mr. Maduro.

Mr. Capriles and Mr. González said the opposition’s focus on encouraging foreign sanctions on Venezuela has failed and must be adjusted. Despite the huge odds against them, they said the opposition must campaign for elections in order to reconnect with the daily problems suffered by Venezuelans in a devastating economic collapse.

“We’re looking for a political event that mobilizes this country,” Mr. Capriles, a charismatic former governor who narrowly lost to Mr. Maduro in 2014, said in video address broadcast on social media Wednesday. “When a person slides into poverty, the only thing he has left is the vote, this expression against this hunger-spreading regime.”

ImageHenrique Capriles, seen here in 2018, says he is looking for a “political event that mobilizes this country.” 
Henrique Capriles, seen here in 2018, says he is looking for a “political event that mobilizes this country.” Credit...Fernando Llano/Associated Press

His call to shift strategy has been echoed by Venezuela’s Catholic Church and the nation’s biggest business association, the two most powerful civic societies opposing the government, underlining the depth of the discontent in the opposition alliance.

Less than a third of Venezuelans believe the main opposition parties should call for a boycott of the December elections, according to separate surveys by Venezuela’s two most prominent polling companies, Datanálisis and Delphos, conducted in July.

Mr. Capriles’s supporters claim his strategy is already producing some results, however short-lived they may be. On Monday, Mr. Maduro freed 50 political prisoners and lifted criminal cases against 60 more dissidents, as part of negotiations with Mr. Capriles.

But those talks met with scathing criticism from the current head of the National Assembly, Juan Guaidó, whose call for a boycott of the Dec. 6 congressional vote is supported by 27 opposition parties.

“At a time when Venezuela is going through a dictatorship, the unity is essential,” Mr. Guaidó said in a video meeting with the U.S. envoy to Venezuela on Thursday. “Venezuelans don’t want to see their leaders fighting. They want to see them fighting for them.”

The biggest winner from the split in the opposition has been Mr. Maduro, who is aiming to wrest control of the National Assembly from Mr. Guaidó in December. Participation from prominent opposition leaders would help Mr. Maduro portray the vote as democratic and let him lobby the international community to relax economic sanctions.

Mr. Capriles’s move is also threatening to fracture the opposition’s biggest remaining weapon against the government — an alliance of about 60 democratic nations who recognize Mr. Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate leader, claiming Mr. Maduro’s last presidential victory was fraudulent.

Juan Guaidó is leading the boycott of the planned Dec. 6 congressional vote.Credit...Adriana Loureiro Fernandez for The New York Times

The United States has unequivocally sided with Mr. Guaidó and criticized Mr. Capriles for weakening the boycott.

“An unfair and unfree parliamentary election will only deepen Venezuela’s crisis,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a Twitter post Friday. “All those who seek to deprive Venezuelans of a democratic future should consider themselves on notice.”

Meanwhile, the European Union has cautiously encouraged Mr. Capriles’s negotiations, and is considering sending an electoral mission to monitor the vote, if it is postponed to a later date. Mr. Capriles’s bid is also supported by Maduro allies Turkey and Russia, which want to relax Western sanctions against Venezuela to boost their commercial activity in the country.

Mr. Capriles, a wiry 48-year-old known for sporty outfits and folksy speech, now has to navigate complex geopolitical alliances as he tries to negotiate better electoral conditions and put together a coalition to confront Mr. Maduro’s Socialist party in December. He is facing a government-stacked electoral council and Supreme Court, a national lockdown, a demoralized electorate and deepening repression by security forces against government dissenters.

His campaign is hobbled by the fact that Mr. Capriles himself is banned from running for office by Mr. Maduro because of unproven corruption charges, a paradox not lost on boycott supporters.

Opposition strategists and people close to Mr. Capriles acknowledge privately that the opposition is unlikely to retain a congressional majority even in relatively clean elections because of Mr. Maduro’s tight grip on the country. More than five million Venezuelans, or one in six citizens, have left the country since the last congressional elections in 2014, depriving the opposition of its most committed voters and financial backers.

Supporters of elections argue it is worth participating even in a fraudulent vote to highlight government abuses. They point to recent events in Belarus, where an unpopular authoritarian leader, Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, was accused of rigging August elections and is now struggling to hold on to power amid widespread protests and defections.

“What matters is not how many seats you have in Parliament, but whether you’re able to mobilize a suffering population around the reality of daily struggle,” said Geoff Ramsey, an expert on Venezuelan politics at the Washington Office on Latin America, a think tank. “Maduro has won the battle. He certainly hasn’t won the war.”

Isayen Herrera contributed reporting from Caracas.