Venezuelan Opposition Seeks Viable Path for Presidential Elections

Despite warnings from disqualified candidate María Corina Machado ("There will be no elections without me!"), Chavismo and dozens of opposition parties are debating an electoral calendar.
Clodovaldo Hernández breaks down the opposition choices for the upcoming election. (Venezuelanalysis)

Following a Supreme Court ruling barring María Corina Machado from running for the 2024 presidential election, the far-right leader defiantly declared, “There will be no elections without me!”

This statement appeared to signal a potential call to arms, particularly as US officials supported her stance by warning that a failure to allow Machado’s candidacy could lead to the reinstatement of unilateral coercive measures (commonly known as sanctions) in April. To underscore its resolve, Washington promptly revoked a previously granted license allowing the Venezuelan state-owned mining company Minerven to engage in international gold trading.

However, recent political developments in Venezuela indicate a peaceful trajectory toward a sixth presidential election since the approval of the 1999 Constitution. The controversy surrounding Machado’s disqualification appears obsolete and exhausted, with the majority of opposition factions showing a commitment to moving forward and concentrating on offering viable alternatives as the electoral timeline is being established through an unprecedented national consultation.

A clear indication of this shift is the National Assembly (AN), which is predominantly controlled by Chavismo, initiating a dialogue process with various national sectors to craft and present a unified proposal to the National Electoral Council (CNE) regarding the electoral schedule. Over forty political parties and movements actively participated in these discussions, offering dates and constructive feedback on the upcoming vote. By the end of these talks, a total of 25 potential electoral dates were under consideration.

From a foreign perspective, with the information provided by the global media machinery, anyone could think that Machado’s assertion (“There will be no elections without me!”) has a real basis and could spoil the electoral process. But reality shows otherwise.

Machado was the winner, last October, of internal primaries in which a part of the political spectrum adverse to the Maduro government participated, but she is far from being the figure capable of unifying the opposition, international marketing notwithstanding. 

The first obstacle for this politician, heiress of a Venezuelan high bourgeoisie family, is precisely her disqualification, which was issued by the Comptroller General’s Office and ratified this year by the Supreme Court of Justice.

The second factor working against her is the lack of broad support within the opposition spectrum, despite the portrayal created by the media establishment. In reality, Machado faces significant opposition from within her own political camp, almost as much as she does from Chavismo. Her leadership style is perceived as overly personal and closely tied to her privileged social background and the support of the United States. Despite a lengthy political career, she has failed to achieve the popularity that her propaganda team claims. The mobilizations she organized after her political ban was upheld were a resounding failure. Consequently, the anticipated powerful street movement to demand the reversal of her disqualification quickly dissipated.

Additionally, the internal elections she won are marred by significant skepticism, not just within the government’s sphere but also among anti-Chavista factions. Several opposition parties opted out of participating in those primaries, which were also met with early criticisms from those who did partake, including Carlos Prosperi from Acción Democrática (AD)—one of its two wings.

As a result of Machado’s demands, this electoral process was conducted solely through manual voting, without any technical support from the National Electoral Council, lacking supervision, and with no opportunities for audits, as all electoral materials were promptly destroyed after the closure of polling stations. Despite the primary commission awarding her over 90% of the votes and reporting a 2.3 million turnout, both figures are surrounded by significant doubts and questions.

Machado’s extreme political stance, which emulates Argentina’s Javier Milei, does not enjoy as much backing as presumed. Her calls to “eradicate socialism” and “hold current regime leaders accountable” suggest that a potential presidency of hers would be filled with internal strife and conflict. Various surveys on the sociopolitical landscape reveal that this goes against the prevailing desire of the majority for peace, stability, and prosperity, especially following years of economic challenges, conflicts, blockades, sanctions, and foreign meddling.

The disqualification is now legal

Machado’s victory in the primaries came as a surprise, considering the widely known fact that she had been barred from holding public office. The National Primaries Commission, led by the renowned lawyer Jesús María Casal, did not raise any objections to her candidacy and ultimately declared her the winner.

The primary election was organized by the Unitary Platform, a fragile coalition consisting of factions from Acción Democrática, the far-right party Primero Justicia, Un Nuevo Tiempo (a social democratic group that split from AD years ago), and Voluntad Popular (a far-right party associated with Leopoldo López and Juan Guaidó). Despite being aware that Machado could not be officially registered as a presidential candidate due to her disqualification, these parties did not question her participation as the candidate representing Vente Venezuela, her own political organization.

In December 2023, as part of the Barbados Agreements brokered by the government and the US-backed opposition, a mechanism to review the disqualifications of political leaders was established. This process required the affected individuals to submit a formal request for reconsideration of their cases to the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court, with a commitment from all parties to abide by the court’s ruling.

Machado had repeatedly expressed that she would not go to the Supreme Court to challenge her disqualification, calling it nonexistent and, therefore, appealing it would be contradictory. However, on the day of the deadline for filing the complaint, she appeared before the highest court and presented her case. It was very striking that on this occasion, the announcement of this change of opinion was not made by herself, but by the US “ambassador” for Venezuela, Francisco Palmieri, based in Bogotá, as diplomatic relations between Venezuela and the US are broken. It was then interpreted that the government of Joe Biden had “suggested” that Machado appear before the Supreme Court. 

In January, the Constitutional Chamber issued its ruling, upholding Machado’s disqualification. The high court justified its decision by pointing out several infractions committed by the politician, including the pivotal action that led to her initial sanction: accepting a role as an alternate representative of Panama to the OAS while holding a seat in the National Assembly. This occurred in 2014, during Ricardo Martinelli’s administration, and was orchestrated by the OAS Secretary-General, Luis Almagro, to provide a platform for the radical Venezuelan opposition to undermine the legitimate Maduro government in the body’s General Assembly.

Furthermore, Machado stands accused of advocating for economic sanctions and foreign military intervention in Venezuela, as well as actively participating in the questionable interim government of Juan Guaidó. These actions allegedly facilitated the illicit control of Venezuelan assets abroad, such as CITGO and Monómeros, the unauthorized seizure of 31 tons of Venezuelan gold in the United Kingdom, and the freezing of US $4 billion in international bank deposits through imposed sanctions.

With this final ruling, Machado’s disqualification, initially an administrative measure, solidified into an irreversible judicial verdict. “It is res judicata,” government spokespeople have said when faced with demands from the US government and allies to overturn the sentence.

If not Machado, then who?

The National Assembly’s dialogue sessions on the electoral calendar have revealed a shared commitment among a diverse range of opposition forces to engage in the upcoming presidential elections, temporarily setting aside discussions surrounding Machado’s disqualification. 

Several parties and groups that did not partake in the 2023 primaries have already put forth alternative candidates for consideration. Notable potential contenders include:

– Luis Eduardo Martínez, a National Assembly deputy and former governor of Monagas state, has been nominated by a faction of Acción Democrática.

– Evangelical pastor Javier Bertucci, representing his party Cambio, previously ran for president in 2018.

– Deputy José Brito is a candidate for Primero Venezuela, a party that originated from Primero Justicia.

– Independent candidate Benjamín Rausseo, popularly known as “El Conde del Guácharo,” is a comedian entering the presidential race.

– Juan Carlos Alvarado is running for Copei, a Christian social party that historically alternated in power with Acción Democrática, with two presidential victories in 1968 and 1978.

– Antonio Ecarri is the candidate for the recently established party Alianza del Lápiz, and he ran for mayor in Caracas in 2021.

– Luis Ratti, a businessman contending with María Corina Machado for leadership of the Vente Venezuela party.

– Seir Contreras, a young journalist who gained attention for his bold interview with a National Assembly deputy which led to his dismissal from the private channel Globovisión.

In addition to these opposition figures, who range from center-right to right, there are two other names in the left field: journalist and former leader of the Movement Towards Socialism (moderate socialist) Manuel Isidro Molina; and lawyer María Alejandra Díaz, a dissident from Chavismo and former member of the 2017 National Constituent Assembly.

In various circles, Zulia state governor Manuel Rosales has been brought up as an option to assume the candidacy through a political agreement. Rosales was the opposition candidate in 2006 and was soundly defeated by Hugo Chávez. He is the leader of Un Nuevo Tiempo.

There is also some momentum behind the proposal of some intellectuals and politicians to create a consensus around veteran social Christian leader Eduardo Fernández, who was the general secretary of Copei and its presidential candidate in 1988 when he was defeated by the social democrat Carlos Andrés Pérez.

In the camp that supports Machado, there is much speculation about the possibility of her delegating the candidacy to someone else, who would act as a figurehead. Several names have been mentioned, including lawyer Gerardo Blyde, head of the opposition delegation in the dialogue process with the Maduro government; and Magalli Meda, Machado’s personal assistant and campaign manager, an absolute unknown to the country, but who could receive support knowing that the votes are not for her, but for her boss.

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.