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News / Nation & World

Venezuela sets its presidential election for July 28 as the opposition candidate remains barred

By REGINA GARCIA CANO and JORGE RUEDA, , Associated Press,
Published: March 5, 2024, 5:10pm

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuela’s highly anticipated presidential election will take place July 28 – the birthday of the country’s late fiery leader Hugo Chávez – officials announced Tuesday, plowing ahead with a tight campaign season that deepens doubts over the participation of the opposition’s leading candidate as well as of international observers.

President Nicolás Maduro is widely expected to run for reelection. His government initially negotiated details of the election with a faction of the opposition backed by the United States government, but differences between the sides have grown over the past two months.

The date announced by National Electoral Council President Elvis Amoroso did, however, meet at least one opposition demand that the election be held in the second half of the year.

When that broad timeframe was agreed upon by Maduro and his adversaries in October, the intervening months were meant to allow campaigns to mobilize, officials to update voter rolls, and international electoral observers to plan and deploy a mission.

Crucially, the October agreement, signed in the Caribbean island of Barbados and focused on conditions meant to level the playing field for the 2024 election, also called on both sides to “promote the authorization of all presidential candidates and political parties” to participate in the election as long as they comply with the law.

But in January, the country’s top court ratified an administrative decision banning Maduro’s strongest adversary this year, Maria Corina Machado, from running for office.

Amoroso, under his previous capacity as the country’s comptroller, signed the announcement of Machado’s ban from office last summer. He did not address her candidacy during his nationally televised announcement Tuesday, just four days after lawmakers proposed to the ruling party-loyal National Electoral Council more than 20 possible options, ranging from as soon as mid-April to as late as December.

Last month, the opposition’s chief negotiator, Gerardo Blyde, said the group favored a December vote.

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David Smilde, an expert on Venezuelan politics at Tulane University, said Maduro’s government seeks to thread the needle with the July 28 date, fulfilling enough the Barbados agreement to keep it alive while pushing “while pushing on the opposition to try to get it to split or abstain.”

“An ideal outcome for Chavismo would be for the opposition to split or abstain, allowing Maduro to win on a relatively clean Election Day,” he said, referring to the political movement started by Chávez, Maduro’s mentor and predecessor. “And with less than five months, this also puts international observation in a tight spot.”

International electoral observers typically need several months to prepare for an election.

Amoroso said campaigning will be allowed from July 4-25.

The Unitary Platform and Maduro’s government agreed in October during talks in Barbados that the election should be held in the second half of the year while not specifying which month. The agreement earned Maduro relief from some economic sanctions imposed by the U.S.

Machado has insisted throughout her campaign that voters, not ruling-party loyalists, are the rightful decision-makers of her candidacy. On Tuesday, she asked supporters gathered for a rally in western Venezuela for “calm and firmness” in the coming days, but she did not offer any explanations on how she intends to overcome the ban against her.

Machado won an independently run primary held last year by the Unitary Platform, the U.S.-backed opposition faction. She won more than 90% of the vote, with more than 2 million voters turning out for the primary including in strongholds of Maduro’s ruling party.

Tuesday was the 11th anniversary of Chávez death. Smylde said the ruling party will use his birthday to mobilize voters.

While the opposition’s candidate remains in doubt, Maduro will be seeking six more years in office. His entire decade-long presidency has been marked by political, social and economic crisis. Under his watch, millions of Venezuelans have fallen into poverty and more than 7.4 million have migrated.

Benigno Alarcón, political science professor at the Andrés Bello Catholic University of Caracas, said the tight schedule “promises to be full of big questions” but the ruling party is betting on the criticism to eventually subside and not bring major consequences like in the last election cycle, which led to crippling economic sanctions and the recognition of an opposition leader as the country’s legitimate leader.

“Evidently, the government’s main concern is to get the opposition candidate who was elected in the primary, María Corina Machado, out of the way and reduce any time to continue the debate on her qualification or anything else,” he said. “That is basically what is behind this decision.”