Nicolás Maduro tightened his grip over Venezuela on Sunday in legislative elections that some believe effectively marked the end of Juan Guaidó’s US-backed campaign to topple the South American strongman.
The bulk of Venezuela’s beleaguered opposition boycotted the contest for seats in the 277-seat national assembly, calling it a sham designed to lend Maduro’s authoritarian regime an air of democratic legitimacy.
“The dictatorship doesn’t intend to hold an election, it intends to annihilate a nation’s hope,” Guaidó, the opposition leader, said on the eve of a ballot he denounced as a “fraud”.
Bt for Maduro, the vote was a chance to wrestle control of the last state institution not commanded by his ruling Socialist party, by packing it with allies.
Venezuela’s electoral authority said early on Monday that 67.6% of 5.2 million votes cast were for pro-Maduro candidates. Just 31% of the 20 million registered voters participated in the election, the electoral board’s president, Indira Alfonzo, said in comments broadcast on state television.
“We have recovered the national assembly with the majority vote of the Venezuelan people,” Maduro said in a televised address. “It’s a great victory without a doubt for democracy.”
Losing control of the parliament – the last official bastion of opposition to Maduro – deals a further blow to Guaidó’s flagging crusade, which began when he declared himself Venezuela’s legitimate interim president in January 2019.
A coalition of more than 50 governments, including the US, UK, Germany and Brazil, recognised that claim on the basis that Guaidó was head of the national assembly and Maduro’s 2018 re-election had been illegitimate.
But Guaidó, who was among those boycotting the election, will no longer hold that position after 5 January, when the new parliament is sworn in, and his support base, both at home and abroad, appears to be collapsing. Last week, Guaidó’s envoy to the UK announced she was resigning, telling the Financial Times the future of his leadership was “unclear”.
“That is symptomatic of the fact that the coalition around Guaidó is really crumbling,” said Phil Gunson, a Caracas-based analyst for Crisis Group. Gunson said he doubted foreign governments would immediately ditch Guaidó after the election and that he would “trundle on for a while”.
“But unless he is able to reinvent himself in some way I think the Guaidó plan has clearly failed – and Maduro has every right to a victory lap. From his point of view, and it is hard to disagree, he’s seen the back of both Donald Trump and Guaidó. Nearly two years on [from the start of the campaign] there has been no progress – in fact, if anything Maduro is more in control, certainly politically, than he was before.”
Candidates in Sunday’s election included Maduro’s flute-playing 30-year-old son, Nicolás Ernesto Maduro Guerra, or Nicolasito (little Nicolás) as he is better known.
Who is Juan Guaidó?
The opposition leader Juan Guaidó was almost unknown both inside and outside Venezuela until the start of this year.
Guaidó was made chairman of the national assembly in January because it was the turn of his party, Voluntad Popular (People’s Will). At 35, he was a junior member of his party but its leaders were either under house arrest, in hiding or in exile.
He declared himself “interim president” that month, resting his claim on a clause in the constitution that allows the legislature to take power temporarily and call new elections if it deems the president to be failing to fulfil basic duties or to have vacated the post.
Guaidó’s relative obscurity initially proved an advantage in a country where the opposition has generally failed to distinguish itself, losing its nerve at critical moments, succumbing to infighting, and getting involved in a failed coup against Hugo Chávez in 2002.
He inspired a huge wave of protests inside Venezuela with a message of peaceful change, and won widespread international support. Countries from Europe to the US and regional powers recognised him as Venezuela’s legitimate president, handing him control of bank accounts and Venezuelan assets along with the formal recognition.
As months dragged on however, Guaidó’s hope of winning a wave of military defections that would end the rule of Nicolás Maduro seemed to fade, leaving his movement in an uneasy limbo – self-declared president but with no power.
He raised concerns inside Venezuela and internationally when he appeared to hint at the possibility of military intervention after a failed attempt to bring humanitarian aid into the country in February.
Questions have also been raised about the bedfellows Guaidó has chosen in what he calls his bid to rescue Venezuela. His main international backer is Donald Trump.
Another key regional supporter is Brazil’s far-right firebrand president, Jair Bolsonaro, known for his hostility to human rights and his fondness for dictatorship. Despite these characteristics, Guaidó has praised what he called Bolsonaro’s “commitment to and for democracy [and] human rights”.
Gunson said before the vote that the opposition boycott, the manipulation of Maduro’s government and the absence of impartial observers meant the election result was a foregone conclusion and the national assembly doomed to becoming a rubber-stamp parliament. “The government is guaranteed a very large majority,” he said.
For Maduro, the problem remained that “Venezuela’s economy is collapsed, the country is extremely isolated internationally, and there is a lot of discontent within his own movement”.
“So it’s not like he is home free,” Gunson added.
On Saturday, Maduro promised that what he called the “Day of Victory” election would herald “a new era of recovery and genuine progress for all”.
Guaidó urged voters to stay at home, saying: “Today that is the best way of repudiating this fraud”.