Surprising Results of an Unsurprising Win

In less than a week, Venezuela’s political landscape was electroshocked by the unexpected ways in which expected events took place. A sign that we are entering uncharted territory

Surprise 1: Maria Corina’s numbers

We expected María Corina Machado was going to win the primary election. She had consistently led the polls for several months. But the extent of her victory was astonishing: 93% according to the first bulletin by the National Primaries Commission. The second contender, AD’s Carlos Prosperi, got less than 5%. 

Let’s assume that the final result will be similar—we don’t have reasons to think otherwise—and compare it with 2012 primaries, when Henrique Capriles won at 64.3%, and even with presidential elections. At the illegitimate election of 2018, Nicolas Maduro was given 67.8% of the votes. In 2013, Maduro was declared winner at 50.6%. In 2012 Hugo Chávez won his last election at 55%. In 2006, Chávez had his best result, against Manuel Rosales, 62.8%. In 2000, after the new Constitution, a then mighty Chávez won at 59.7%, and in 1999 he rose to power with 56.5% of the votes. Coño, you have to go to the referendum that dictator Marcos Perez Jimenez organized to grant himself another period, one month before getting toppled, to find the closest number: 86.7%. 

One can say that few of the running candidates in the primaries are as well known as Machado or that many of them had very little to seek in that race. And that is true. But it’s also true that no one else, running in the primaries or not, was nearing her current popularity. This is a pre-candidate that is facing considerable friendly fire within the opposition and who is banned from running in the presidential election.

Surprise 2: the primaries turnout 

If we quadruple the 601,000 votes reported at the Commission’s first bulletin showing 26% of collected votes, the turnout is around 2,3 million voters, which is 11% of the total voters universe in Venezuela (of course the final result depends on the density of the remaining voting centers, we’ll see). We are talking about a voters registry deeply flawed that is not taking into account the reality of more than 7 million people living abroad, and about a primary election that was made with almost no money, no help from the National Electoral Council (CNE), no real consensus in the opposition, and all kinds of obstacles put in the way by Chavista-controlled institutions. In 2012, in a quite different country, 16% of the voters universe took part in the primaries; this time, expert pollster Felix Seijas told Tony, that 8% were likely to vote and that the ceiling was 19% of the voting universe. Yesterday, many people were unable to vote because of lack of proper registration in the voting centers, or lack of Venezuelan IDs, or simply lack of a place next to them where they could vote. Considerar that hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans in Argentina, for example, didn’t vote because the primaries were suspended there because of the Argentinean elections. That 2.3 million voted yesterday is great news. I myself was expecting no more than 800,000, considering how difficult this primary was. 

Surprise 3: the extent of the sanctions relief

We can’t forget these results came three days after the U.S. government issued a relief package of the economic sanctions in place since 2019. We were expecting the Biden administration was about to lift some sanctions in exchange for better electoral conditions and the release of political prisoners, but we didn’t expect the extent of the measures, which we analyzed in this piece. Not even the Maduro government expected the relief would be so large. In the context of the Barbados agreement signed less than a week ago, the sanction relief opened a whole new situation, in terms of the country’s economic prospects and the chances of having an acceptable presidential election in 2024, where Maduro can become legitimate again… or lose.

The new questions to solve

That critical things we knew will happen are happening in surprising ways means that we are forced to refresh our views, because it’s now evident that the context has changed. How much? That is the first mystery that we face. 

Maria Corina Machado is the new, clear leader of the opposition. What will other contenders do about it? collaborate or compete? Now that she won the primaries with such a landslide, will politicians like Carlos Prosperi and Manuel Rosales –or any other politician who criticized the primaries were unnecessary or said there should be a consensus candidate– run against Maduro and Machado in 2024, alongside with alacranes and fringe candidates? During these past hours we saw candidates like Andrés Velásquez, Freddy Superlano and Delsa Solórzano joining Machado at celebrating her triumph. Other candidates and parties, including Henrique Capriles and Primero Justicia, also recognized her victory and offered their support. Nevertheless, even if Acción Democrática (AD) is recognizing her victory, one has to wonder what will be the next steps of AD’s candidate Carlos Prosperi –the primary’s second place– after a video leaked yesterday showing him saying that the primaries was a sham election? (his party rejected Prosperi’s allegations).

Machado has been stressing Chavismo for some time. In our Political Risk Report, we’ve said that even Chavista grassroot movements have started to show interest in her. She’s banned from running in 2024 and the Americans have so far been unable to convince Chavismo to let her run. Maduro has many reasons to be afraid of her, and Diosdado Cabello even more. What will they do now to stop her?

Another question is what Machado can do. She has proven to be a tenacious fighter, but she also has a history of resisting alliances and difficulties to reach out to voters beyond the middle classes. Now she needs to rethink the hardliner brand that brought her here, because she needs more political allies and voters beyond the opposition hardcore nucleus. Machado needs to negotiate and build a campaign, while protecting herself from a Chavista elite that identifies her as an existential threat. As someone who entered national politics leading Súmate –an NGO focused on electoral rights– she has an opportunity to build a citizen’s movement around, starting with the network that made the primaries possible and which she rightly celebrated as a notorious achievement.  

This is getting interesting. And frightening. And kind of hopeful, too?

We promise to do our best to interpret the new landscape, here and at our Political Risk Report: check it out and subscribe here.