Opposition Prospects Remain Unclear After Primary Elections

VA columnist Clodovaldo Hernández weighs the Venezuelan opposition options for the 2024 presidential vote and whether María Corina Machado will be the next Guaidó.
opposition Machado
Clodovaldo Hernández argues that Machado will be the main disrupting factor of the 2024 presidential vote.

The opposition primaries have come and gone, and so has the wave on which the far right surfed for a few days, fueled by turnout numbers that only the most fanatical dare to defend.

The intention of María Corina Machado, the winner of the primaries, was to cause the sudden death of any other option in the anti-Chavista spectrum, settle the discussion early, and impose herself as the unitary presidential candidate. But that’s not what happened, and a month after the internal elections, the landscape is far from being cleared.

The subsequent moves of the government and other opposition factors have reshaped the uncertainties that already existed before the primaries.

The alleged fraud

On one hand, Chavismo, through the Attorney General’s Office, opened an investigation into alleged fraud in the voter turnout and the number of votes obtained by the winner. 

At first, it seemed like a typical act of damage control, a sigh of relief for the wound, but there are several sources that claim that the directors of the National Primary Commission (CNdP, the authority that organized and directed the election) questioned by prosecutors, confirmed that the real numbers were significantly inflated to make it appear that there was greater participation than there actually was, as well as a landslide victory for Machado. 

These explosive testimonies are in the hands of the Attorney General and could be publicly exposed at the most convenient time.

These claims support previous allegations made by the candidate who came in second (a country mile away from the winner, Machado, who garnered 93% of the support), Carlos Prosperi, from one of the factions of Democratic Action (AD, the powerful political party in the second half of the 20th century, and currently divided into two blocs). To intensify the suspicions, these allegations were initially backed by AD leader, Henry Ramos Allup, but on election day, he seemingly abandoned Prosperi and gave his blessings to the primaries as well as the results in which his own political party suffered a humiliating defeat.

Other opposition leaders and activists have boosted the thesis that it was all a big smokescreen. Some of them have cited alleged figures handled by the US State Department, according to which, Machado only obtained about 930,000 votes, while the official figure exceeds 2.2 million.

Simple calculations based on the number of polling stations (only 3,000) and the time required for manual voting in this process make it very difficult to believe the participation figures of more than 2.5 million voters. However, the media and social media narrative prevailed as truth, especially in the international sphere, where Machado was definitively anointed as the new leader of the Venezuelan opposition and eventual replacement for Juan Guaidó in his role as head of an interim government that has not ceased to exist, since it continues to manage vast Venezuelan state resources seized in the United States and other countries.

The other candidates

The defeated pre-candidates – except for Prosperi – recognized Machado as the winner, but that did not mean the end of the internal electoral debate within the opposition.

There are several presidential pretenders who remained operating outside of the primaries. Once the excitement of Machado and her victory subsided, they returned to activity, demonstrating that they are still in the race or, at least, have not officially decided to withdraw.

Among them are Benjamin Rausseo, a comedian with a vulgar style and successful businessman known as “el Conde del Guácharo”; José Brito, a dissident from the Justice First party since 2020; Luis Eduardo Martínez, a veteran leader proclaimed by the other faction of Acción Democrática, which legally has control of the party; the independent Manuel Isidro Molina, a journalist and former member of the Movement to Socialism party; and the lawyer and dissident from Chavismo, María Alejandra Díaz.

The crucial point remains that Machado is disqualified from running for public office until 2030, and therefore, her resounding victory in the primaries will not be enough for the National Electoral Council to register her presidential candidacy in 2024. 

The far-right leader’s radical stance is considered one of the reasons for her rise as an opposition figure (she has been on the scene for over 20 years, but has now reached her zenith), but paradoxically, that is also the reason why it will be very difficult for her ban to be lifted. Someone who has promised to “uproot socialism once and for all” cannot expect a measure of goodwill from those who would be her potential victims.

In political gossip, it is said that Machado is debating between three options: calling for a rebellion in the streets to force the government to accept her candidacy; calling for abstention in the presidential elections; and appointing a chosen one, a candidate who represents her in the process and who, eventually, appoints her as vice president.

One of those mentioned as Machado’s “frontman” is lawyer Gerardo Blyde, who has headed the opposition delegation in the dialogue process with the government in the last few years. Meanwhile, other reports point out that Venezuelan tycoon Lorenzo Mendoza, owner of Empresas Polar (one of the largest conglomerates in the country’s food, beer and soft drinks sectors), who has appeared as a possible outsider in past presidential elections, should not be discarded.

Machado may not be able to go “all the way”, as her campaign slogan says, but there is no doubt that she will be the main disrupting factor of the 2024 presidential vote, both for President Nicolás Maduro, in his role as candidate for reelection and for whoever turns out to be the main opposition candidate.

It is foreseeable that, from her position as winner of the primaries and with the support of international factors, she will aim her fire against the government and against the qualified opposition candidates. The latter will be accused of collaborating with the government to help it remain in power.

The Essequibo referendum 

Apart from the official investigation of irregularities in the primaries, the other event deployed by the government to cut Machado’s victory parade short is the referendum on the Essequibo.

The call for an unforeseen consultation has awakened the electoral machinery of the ruling Socialist Party and has even managed to go beyond, given the crucial nature of the issue. The turnout numbers from November 19’s dry-run make it possible to imagine that the government will close the year with a symbolic success that will have overshadowed (regarding the capacity of mobilization to vote) the primaries, especially if the declarations made by the directors of the primary organizers to prosecutor’s office are made public.

Machado tried to downplay the referendum by pointing out that “sovereignty is not consulted, it is exercised”, but she has been overshadowed by a large number of political and civil organizations not aligned with the government, but who have joined the call to vote for the Essequibo consultation.

Her argument is weakened when she affirms that the referendum (an electoral act par excellence) is a maneuver of “the dictatorship”.

The Milei effect

These internal dynamics in Venezuela coincided with the victory in Argentina of Javier Milei, a candidate who -with a strident and not-so-pretty style- closely resembles both Machado and several other leaders of the Venezuelan far right, including some who are outside the country.

The triumph of the raucous ultra-right-winger has given fuel to the aspirations of those who share his radical proposals against socialism and the State, in general.

The fact that broad popular and middle-class sectors have supported a candidate who has openly promised to erase their social rights (including public healthcare and education) makes Venezuelan ultra-rightists think that this extravagant phenomenon could be repeated here, especially due to the great economic difficulties suffered by the majority of the population as a consequence of the US-led blockade, the unilateral coercive measures, the internal economic war and rampant corruption.

The radical anti-Chavismo factors, with Machado in a leading role, hope that Milei’s first steps in his work of systematic destruction of the Argentinian State will be perceived in Venezuela as positive by large sectors of the population that have been captured by the anti-socialist discourse and that this will lead to a level of pressure that will force the government to validate her candidacy for 2024.

On the other hand, there are those who predict that Milei’s first measures will cause such instability in the South American country that sooner rather than later he will become a hindrance for any right-wing candidate who intends to follow in his footsteps. Time will tell.

“The vaccine against the Mileis, which must be used by popular democratic projects, is to present and execute programs well differentiated from neoliberalism, and ethics and democratic methods opposed to those practiced by the right-wing, coherence between what is said and what is done,” Elías Jaua Milano, former Venezuelan Vice President.

Clodovaldo Hernández is a journalist and political analyst with experience in higher education. He won the National Journalism Prize (Opinion category) in 2002. He is the author of the books Reinventario (poetry and short stories) De genios y de figuras (journalistic profiles) and Esa larga, infinita distancia (novel).

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Venezuelanalysis editorial staff.

Translated by Venezuelanalysis.com.