Opposition Primary Elections Announced for 2023

The opposition alliance PUEDE announced it will organize the election of a unitary candidate in 2023, preparing for the presidential election supposed to happen in 2024. The way this primary evolves could be critical for survival of non-chavista parties

Photo: Sofía Jaimes Barreto

“I don’t know what the election laws say. There are no elections in 2022 and 2023, at least. We’ll see when they are held…”

Those were Nicolás Maduro’s words on February 4th, 2022, while speaking at an event celebrating the failed coup of 1992. We really shouldn’t expect a different attitude from the regime considering that the last regional elections showed a worrying trend: while PSUV won most states and municipalities, for the first time ever, the ruling party failed to secure four million votes. In fact, there were more votes against them, than in favor.

Even so, the unpopular opposition doesn’t look close to power. We’re 30 months away from the next expected presidential election and there are no clear candidates or leaders to represent the people who are unhappy with PSUV’s governance. It’s become quite difficult to keep track of all the alliances and internal fights among those who allegedly oppose Maduro and the PSUV. 

The Plataforma Unitaria Democrática (PUEDE), the new form of the traditional alliance led by AD, Primero Justicia, Voluntad Popular and Un Nuevo Tiempo, tries to preserve the monopoly of the opposition brand over Alianza Democrática, a coalition of over 20 political parties, among which are those made up by the Supreme Tribunal of Justice (TSJ) in the operation to take the parties’ symbols, names and colors from their leaders in favor of Maduro-friendly challengers. PUEDE hasn’t done much to change the perpetual leader perception either, having named 77-year-old Omar Barboza as their executive secretary just last month.  

Besides exile, government surveillance and political prisoners, this is the context where the opposition faces the question of whether they’ll be asking the National Electoral Council (CNE) to provide technical assistance for their primaries to elect a candidate for 2024. 

The last time the opposition came close to removing the PSUV from power were the 2012 and 2013 presidential elections. The opposition held its primary on February 12th, 2012, and  Capriles won, taking 62% of the total votes cast. This primary was organized by the MUD, with the CNE providing technical assistance, and the organizers took extra steps to protect people’s privacy and trust in the process like the destruction of voting center registries after 48 hours.

Many, many things have happened in Venezuela since then. But what remains of the opposition is considering primaries again, given the need to compete in 2024. Despite his own past, former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles Radonski has spoken favorably of asking the CNE for help, stating that their machines “aren’t Maduro’s” and belong to “all Venezuelans.” True, the CNE has somewhat changed, with new members being sworn in to the board of authorities last year, but the state entity remains heavily politicized. Three of its five board members are well-known chavistas with a fourth, Enrique Márquez, having been suspended from Un Nuevo Tiempo for supporting Henri Falcón’s presidential bid in 2018. The fifth board member, Roberto Picón, a former consultant of the extinct MUD, is respected among the opposition, but he’s faced threats from PSUV members for criticizing the CNE.

In paper, having the CNE provide assistance could build trust in the election results in an open primary, given that no involved party would be the one counting the votes and announcing the results. However, including chavismo’s electoral authority, opens the door for even greater internal conflict. Who’s to say PUEDE won’t accuse them of favoring Alianza Democrática’s candidates if they get a good result? Who’s to say the PSUV won’t accuse them of doing so?

Alianza Democrática hasn’t made clear what its primary process will look like. That said, Alfonso Campos Jessurun (secretary general of the Esperanza por el Cambio, a member of Alianza Democrática) seemed to imply they’d prefer a single, open primary that includes PUEDE, rather than holding separate elections. Other actors like one-year-old Fuerza Vecinal, MAS, and Alianza del Lápiz have approached the CNE to inquire about the extent of what assistance they could provide to the opposition’s primary process. 

PUEDE’s Omar Barboza, on the other hand, announced on Tuesday, June 28th, that the movement will be holding its primary elections in 2023. The announcement didn’t really answer every question but there were a few interesting points.

First off, Barboza said that anyone could participate, not just the parties that make up PUEDE, thus putting the ball in Alianza Democrática’s court, even if they were never mentioned by name.

Second, PUEDE will set up a National Primaries Commission, made up of “respected actors” from the civil society. Even when pressed by journalists in attendance, Barboza didn’t reveal the names of the people who will make up the Commission. Likewise, PUEDE’s position on whether to request technical assistance from the CNE isn’t very clear either. Barboza mentioned that it would be the Commission’s prerogative to consider requesting technical assistance from national or international entities. This may even signal PUEDE’s intention to request assistance from countries like Norway or Mexico, which have played key roles in the opposition’s talks with Maduro’s government over the last year.

This is an interesting decision; it postpones answering the question but makes it look like you’re working on something. Considering the Commission’s members will be decided “by consensus,” it also implies you’ll be working with—or at least saying you’re working with— Alianza Democrática. Judging by the fact that Alianza Democrática wasn’t named by Barboza, and the fact that they haven’t announced anything themselves, it seems like the two sides aren’t involved in those conversations yet. Those conversations may never come, this may all be smoke and mirrors to score political points with their sympathizers, but we’ll see where it leads.

So the only news so far is that PUEDE is supporting primaries, not just appointing a unitary candidate, as may be the wish of some people in the alliance, who feel they have the right to become the opposition’s champion. 

Everyone seems to be walking on eggshells. No side has come out and just said what they want and how they plan on doing it. It seems as if everyone’s dipping their toes in the water every so often, trying to gauge the public’s reaction. This is all very common in politics, but people’s appetite for politics is very low (judging by the regional elections in November) which means something different must be attempted in order to break past that ice. Whether those standing in the way of trying something new will step aside, remains to be seen. 

In the meantime, Barboza just seemed to invite everyone to compete for the doubtful honor of competing against Maduro (or his heir?) in 2024. Properly done, a primary could mend wounds and refresh the organizational capacities, instilling again a spirit of doing something, of fighting back. If it’s a disaster, it could be the final push for an opposition that’s already on the edge of extinction in some states and cities.