Venezuela casts its vote in regional elections in front of international eyes

Venezuela casts its vote in regional elections in front of international eyes

Caracas Under the supervision of international observers, Venezuelans cast ballots for thousands of local races on Sunday in an election that included for the first time in four years the participation of a major opposition, a move that divided the bloc already opposed to President Nicolas Maduro.

More than 130 international observers, mostly from the European Union, are deployed across the South American country to take note of electoral conditions such as integrity, media access, campaign activities and the disqualification of candidates. Their presence was among a series of moves aimed at building confidence in Venezuela’s long-distorted electoral system, but turnout remains low.

“It gives me more confidence that they respect our right to vote and they respect our vote because we want to change that,” hospital worker Pedro Martinez, 56, said of the observers’ work. However, he understood why so few people stand in line at the polling station in the eastern Caracas neighborhood that usually votes against Maduro and his allies: opposition leaders are “fighting among themselves”.

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“This division in the opposition is leading to fewer people[voting],” said Martinez, whose country’s economy and health care services have been a priority this election. “The opposition has to work hard to win the trust of the people.”

More than 21 million Venezuelans were eligible to vote in more than 3,000 contests, including 23 governors and 335 mayors. More than 70,000 candidates participated in the races.

The results were expected late Sunday.

Historically, voter turnout has been low in state and municipal elections, with abstentions being around 70%. Regional rivalries usually do not attract much attention outside the country’s borders, but Sunday was different due to the steps taken by the Maduro regime and its opponents before the elections.

The National Assembly, which has a majority supportive of Maduro, in May appointed two well-known opponents as members of the leadership of the National Electoral Council, one of whom was an activist who had been imprisoned on charges of participating in actions to destabilize the government. This is the first time since 2005 that the Venezuelan opposition includes more than one member of the board of directors of the five-person electoral college.

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In August, representatives of Maduro’s government and allies of opposition leader Juan Guaido began a formal dialogue, directed by Norwegian diplomats and hosted by Mexico, to find a common path out of their country’s political crisis. By the end of that month, the opposition’s decision to participate was announced. For months, Maduro’s representatives also held behind-the-scenes talks with allies of former opposition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles.

Maduro agreed to allow a large presence of international observers, meeting the opposition’s demand. The European Union, motivated by talks in Mexico, accepted the invitation of Venezuelan officials. But those talks were suspended last month after a key Maduro ally was handed over to the United States.

It is the first time in 15 years that EU observers are in Venezuela. In previous elections, external monitoring was carried out mainly by multilateral and regional electoral organizations close to the Venezuelan executive. They are expected to release a preliminary report on Tuesday and take an in-depth look next year.

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Millions of Venezuelans live in poverty and face low wages, soaring food prices and the worst inflation in the world. The country’s political, social and economic crises, intertwined with declining oil production and prices, continued to deepen with the pandemic.

“I vote for Venezuela, I don’t vote for any political party,” said Luis Palacios, 72, outside a polling station in the capital, Caracas. I am not interested in politicians, they do not represent this country. I think Venezuela can improve by participating because, well, we don’t have any other choice anymore.”

Regardless of turnout, Sunday’s election could signal the emergence of new opposition leaders, strengthening alliances and drawing lines to follow in Maduro’s opponents, who arrive in this election decimated by internal divisions, often rooted in their frustration at their inability to emerge. from the country. The authority of the heirs of the late President Hugo Chavez.

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“What we will see is a fight for second place because second place will symbolically mean which opposition (the government thinks) should stop more, it will have weight,” said Felix Segas, director of statistical research firm Delphos. before the elections. He added that the results will show who is the “second force” in the country, and which segment of the opposition it represents.

Maduro and First Lady Celia Flores, in televised messages after casting their votes, urged Venezuelans to come out to vote.

He said the elections would “enhance political dialogue, strengthen democratic governance, and strengthen the ability to face problems and find solutions.” However, in the same statements to reporters, he said that dialogue with the opposition cannot be resumed at the present time.

“It was the US government that stabbed in the back the dialogue between the Bolivarian government in Venezuela and the extremist opposition to Guaidóssta in Venezuela,” he said, referring to Guaido, who is recognized by the United States as the legitimate leader of South America. country.

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They have to respond to this kidnapping and at the moment we think there are conditions we will announce to the country, Maduro said, referring to the arrest and extradition of his ally Alex Saab, which he considers a kidnapping, arguing that Saab was a diplomat on a humanitarian mission when he was arrested in Cape Verde.

The United States has imposed economic sanctions on the government of Venezuela, Maduro and some of his allies, including Saab. The leadership change in the Electoral Council and the government’s participation in the dialogue in Mexico were seen as measures aimed at seeking to improve relations with the Biden administration.

On Twitter, Guaido described the elections as an attempt by Maduro to “relativize and normalize the crisis.”

“There are no conditions for free and fair elections in Venezuela,” he said in a video clip on Twitter ahead of the elections. “The reasons are obvious. The electoral authority in Venezuela is not independent, it is protected by a dictatorship.”

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