Venezuela Opposition Split on Who Will Challenge Maduro in July Election

(Bloomberg) -- Venezuela’s decision to hold presidential elections in July has sent shock waves through the opposition, which now has less than three weeks to find a challenger to Nicolás Maduro.

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Facing a March 25 deadline for candidates to register, the opposition is fractured over how to proceed with leading contender María Corina Machado banned from participating in the election. Some support Machado’s continued attempts to fight her disqualification by a government court, while others want to move on and pick a replacement.

Machado, who received more than 2.3 million votes in her October primary victory, is committed to participating, according to Pedro Urruchurtu, her international affairs coordinator.

“María Corina has the legitimacy,” Urruchurtu said in an interview. “It is about enforcing the mandate she received, and to propose anything else is to betray it.”

Machado has held out hope that a unified opposition will sustain the momentum her primary win created and force Maduro to allow her to participate. But the rushed electoral timeline follows the contours of previous Maduro attempts to catch his opponents off guard and spark disputes among them — in 2018, his decision to hold elections months sooner than originally planned similarly threw the opposition into chaos.

The Tuesday announcement that this year’s election would take place on July 28 was likely meant to put any debate about Machado’s status to rest for good, said Benigno Alarcón, director of the political studies center at Andrés Bello Catholic University in Caracas.

“The main goal of setting the election date is to turn the page on María Corina’s disqualification,” Alarcón said. “It is about closing that chapter as soon as possible.”

Read More: Venezuela Calls for July Election Amid Increased Repression

Maduro is under international pressure to reverse the ban: The US reinstated sanctions on the country’s state gold producer after the decision was ratified in January, and threatened further action on oil and gas production if banned candidates weren’t allowed to run and political prisoners were not released by April. The EU Parliament in February said it would not recognize the legitimacy of the contest unless Machado is allowed to run.

But not everyone agrees with her strategy. The opposition needs to make a decision “now,” former governor and two-time presidential candidate Henrique Capriles said in a social media post after the announcement, adding that “under no circumstances can people be left without a choice.”

Moderate opposition leaders believe an alternate candidate should be appointed by a coalition known as the Unitary Platform, to which Machado does not belong, people familiar with the developing talks said, requesting anonymity to discuss internal matters.

Brazil President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva also called on the opposition to pick a new candidate. The leftist Lula, a longtime ally of Venezuela’s socialist governments, on Wednesday compared the situation to his arrest ahead of Brazil’s 2018 election, saying that “instead of crying” he nominated an ally to run in his place.

Machado blasted the comments, saying in a social media post that Lula was “validating the abuses of an autocrat.”

“I am fighting to assert the right of millions of Venezuelans who voted for me in the primaries and the millions who have the right to do so in a free presidential election in which I will defeat Maduro,” she said. “The only truth is that Maduro is afraid to confront me because he knows that the Venezuelan people are in the street with me today.”

Read More: Machado Slams Lula for ‘Validating an Autocrat’ in Venezuela

Even if the opposition does pick a replacement, there is no guarantee that the person they choose won’t face the same fate as Machado.

In late 2021, a court banned then-opposition candidate Freddy Superlano after he secured a rare triumph in the Chavista stronghold of Barinas, a cattle-raising state in western Venezuela. It then barred two alternate governor candidates appointed later, including his non-politician wife. Sergio Garrido, a fourth choice from the opposition’s oldest party, was finally allowed to run and defeated the ruling party’s candidate.

The Biden administration hasn’t reacted yet to Maduro’s most recent move. The State Department didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

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