Looking Ahead After the November Elections

VA columnist Ociel López looks at the new balance of forces in the country.

The results of the November regional and local elections are out, and we enter into the latter half of President Nicolás Maduro’s second term in office.

Three years remain before the next presidential election in 2024. No new national ballots are scheduled until then, but a recall referendum is constitutionally possible as of January 2022. The opposition does not, however, have suitable conditions to achieve this option, at least for now.

The 2021 trend towards greater political and economic stability in Venezuela seems to have been consolidated by the recent elections.

One of the causes of this stabilization is the definitive failure of Juan Guaidó’s project, a project kept alive only to manage the assets granted by Washington and Bogotá to the so-called “interim government.” With the participation of [nearly] the entire opposition in the elections, including that of Guaidó’s Popular Will party, the “interim government” is visibly reduced to what it really is: a minority with no internal weight in the opposition. The project was backed by former US President Donald Trump to shake up the “backyard” and secure a win in Florida, but the momentum has now been lost.

With control over at least 19 of 23 states and more than 200 mayors out of 335, as well as an overwhelming majority in the legislative branch and the rest of the public powers, Maduro sits comfortably. He can also boast about having defeated the attempts to block him financially and overthrow him through a parallel government, both of which were fiercely supported by Europe and the US’ status quo, not to mention some Latin American governments, the defunct Lima Group or the Organization of American States.

Nonetheless, the reasons for the recent stabilization are not only political (or geopolitical), but also economic.

Even the most critical and pessimistic economists project economic growth between 1% and 5% in 2022, a first since 2012. Since 2012, all economic indicators have been negative and the overall downturn has reached double digits.

Additionally, several firms estimate that the oil sector will increase both production and exports next year, which would be an important boost after several years of brutal crisis in the industry, even if levels remain well below historical markers.

Internally, the hyperinflationary situation is being left behind and all projections have reduced their estimates concerning inflation and currency devaluation. Although the minimum wage remains extremely low, there is a gradual, albeit uneven, recovery of income levels from other sources and full dollarization of the economy.

Remittances, which constituted a major household income source during the hardest years of the crisis, could increase further due to the post-pandemic economic recovery elsewhere.

Likewise, one can observe a degree of political normalization, with meetings between Maduro and the elected opposition governors and the European Union publishing its report on the recent electoral process. Both grant the government new oxygen and allow it to start to think about the next six-year term.

But despite the accumulated power, the path ahead is not clear cut.

In November, the government’s vote dropped to its lowest historical levels, and it has seen its solid base eroded amid high abstention (60% in the regional elections). This base may no longer be enough to win a presidential election. In fact, the opposition got almost one million more votes than the government on a national scale, with the latter dropping two million votes compared to the 2017 regional elections.

The case of Barinas state ̶ where opposition politician Freddy Superlano held the advantage before the Supreme Court suspended the count so as to repeat the elections ̶ will also sound the alarms for the government. Before the controversial decision, the opposition was preparing to conquer the “cradle” of the revolution for the first time in 22 years.

However, there is another more important factor at play: the opposition’s internal division.

The opposition’s mosaic

The reduced number of offices obtained by the opposition in the regional elections was mainly due to their internal division. The opposition surpassed the government’s vote by10% at a national level, and if it had run unified candidates it may have won up to eighteen states.

The opposition’s situation is not conjectural. A gap has opened between opposition sectors that we could call “dissidents” that chose to do politics inside Venezuela and hold some positions of power and the main opposition leadership that ventured off with Guaidó’s “interim government” from afar. That opposition returned to Venezuela after the Mexico negotiations and signed up for the elections.

Likewise, the Supreme Court decision to intervene in some opposition parties and appoint ad-hoc leaderships has led to a clash that makes it difficult to come to agreements over unified candidacies.

As such, each government candidate faced several opposition candidates in November, and that is the real reason behind the results.

The opposition won about 120 mayoralties, with about half going to the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) ̶ the traditional opposition coalition that brings together the four main parties ̶ and the other half to the so-called dissidents.

Venezuela now has a map with many shades and colors for the opposition. This makes it much more difficult to achieve unity.

This division is structural and could be difficult to overcome. In these conditions, the government would enjoy a great advantage for the 2024 presidential elections even if it doesn’t increase its own electoral base.

This is unless a leader emerges that can bring together both opposition sectors. In this regard, November’s results offer some clues.

The first is the sweeping triumph of [2006 presidential candidate] Manuel Rosales in the country’s most populous state: Zulia. Rosales’ party, A New Era, is part of the MUD bloc and supported Guaidó’s “interim government” until a few weeks ago. However, his triumph and subsequent sit-down with Maduro may allow him to build a personal profile that could appeal to both sectors of the opposition.

The other interesting result is that the dissident opposition won more than 50 mayoralties. [Two-time presidential candidate] Henrique Capriles has tried to produce a unifying discourse after reading the results and seeing the progress of the dissident bloc. He is one of the few leaders who has maintained open communication with various sectors and even criticized candidates from his own party who ended up dividing the opposition vote.

Capriles is seen as the man to “substitute” Guaidó by several international agencies including Bloomberg. He also enjoys stronger links with the key European Union.

Mexico negotiations

There is still no clarity on the progress of the Mexico dialogue between the Guaidó opposition and the government. The negotiations were interrupted by Alex Saab’s extradition.

The future of the talks is unclear in part because the elections forged a new political map in which the dissident opposition, which has not participated in Mexico, obtained as many victories as the traditional opposition.

In addition, the government’s main demands regarding the end of the blockade and the financial sanctions were not processed either by opposition actors in Mexico or by Washington.

This raises the question of what would be the use of the government restarting the negotiations since it has accumulated a lot of power and faces a divided opposition. The most effective way to revive the talks is for Brussels and Washington to put a partial reversal of the policies currently in place on the table.

Beyond this, the winds seem to be changing for Venezuela and the landscape opens up in a more friendly manner, but maybe not for long.

However, with President Joe Biden in a weaker position, and Trump breathing down his neck, the storm may return. 2024 will bring presidential elections not only in Venezuela but also the US, and campaigning is about to begin.

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