CARACAS – President Nicolás Maduro has cemented formal control over all major institutions of power in Venezuela with authorities reporting Monday that his political alliance easily won a majority in congress. Yet he remains a pariah to much of the world following an election critics called deeply undemocratic.
Maduro’s domestic adversaries, however, are also scrambling to assert their own relevance after boycotting elections for the National Assembly that has been their stronghold for five years.
Opposition groups led by Juan Guaidó launched a risky referendum on Monday, betting some of their prestige on hopes they hope can reignite a campaign to oust Maduro in a nation suffering unprecedented economic and political crises that have spurred millions to flee abroad.
And both sides are waiting to see what happens in Washington as President-elect Joe Biden takes office next month, replacing a Trump administration that piled sanctions atop criminal charges atop embargoes in so-far unsuccessful attempts to drive Maduro from power.
While Biden has referred to Maduro as “a dictator,” he and aides have made few detailed statements about how they will approach the crisis in Venezuela.
“Both the Guaidó interim government and the de facto Maduro regime have failed to deliver on their promises and produce results,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue. “The distrust is almost total, and with good reason.”
Just 31% of Venezuelans eligible voters voted Sunday, according to Venezuelan electoral officials loyal to Maduro. Authorities said that his United Socialist Party of Venezuela and allied parties captured more than 67% of votes for seats in the National Assembly. Turnout for the previous congressional election in 2015 was more than double that percentage.
The number of overall seats won was not immediately clear.
“The results of the election show a discouraged, tired people, the vast majority doing everything possible to survive,” Shifter said.
The National Assembly has been the last major government institution held by the opposition, though Maduro loyalists in the courts and other institutions had largely sidelined the legislature by rejecting its decisions and unseating senior figures there.
Guaidó's leadership of congress won him recognition as Venezuela's legitimate president from the U.S. and scores of other countries that considered Maduro's own most recent election invalid. But the National Assembly's term expires Jan. 5.
The U.S., Panama, Canada and Germany have repeated their condemnation of the the election by Maduro's government following announcement of the results.
In a statement, European Union foreign ministers said Monday the vote “failed to comply with the minimum international standards for a credible process and to mobilize the Venezuelan people to participate.”
“Venezuela urgently needs a political solution to end the current impasse and to allow for the delivery of the urgently required humanitarian assistance to its people,” the UE and European Council said.
More than 5 million people have fled the country in recent years, the world’s largest migration after that of war-torn Syria. The International Monetary Fund projects a 25% decline this year in Venezuela’s GDP, while hyperinflation has devoured its currency, the bolivar, now worth less than a millionth of a dollar on the free market.
The opposition boycotted the election after a Supreme Court ruling this year appointing a new election commission, including three members who have been sanctioned by the U.S. and Canada, without participation of the opposition-led congress, as the law requires.
The court also removed the leadership of three opposition parties — including Guaidó’s — appointing new leaders the opposition accuses of conspiring to support Maduro.
Maduro's son and wife were among candidates winning a seat in congress. Campaigning for them, Maduro promised to finally silence the right-wing opposition, which he accuses of inciting violent street protests and inviting U.S. sanctions.
Guaidó’s opposition movement is holding its own referendum that started Monday with a form of voting by cellphone app and concludes Saturday with in-person balloting.
It asks Venezuelans whether they want to end Maduro’s “usurpation of the presidency" and hold new presidential elections.
“Although I cannot promise a magic solution today, I can tell you with certainty and security: You are not alone. We will not give up,” Guaidó said in a Sunday video message. “We are going to give everything until we win.”
Maduro, the hand-picked successor to the late President Hugo Chávez, won a second term in 2018 in a vote that domestic and foreign critics allege was rigged. His most popular challengers were banned.
The Trump administration and other countries have said they will continue to back Guaidó in the absence of what they consider fair elections.
Washington has hit Maduro and his political allies with sanctions, and the U.S. Justice Department has indicted Maduro as a “narcoterrorist,” offering a $15 million reward for his arrest. The U.S. has banned financial dealings with the government, choking off much of its petroleum industry.
Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Washington-based Council of the Americas and Americas Society think tank, said it could take months before Biden's administration establishes its policy toward Venezuela.
And with Guaidó's congressional term ending, along with legal immunity granted sitting congressmen, he is exposed to the possibility of being arrested by Maduro's government, Farnsworth said.
“You have a country that’s embarked on the full path of dictatorship," Farnsworth said. "The international community now has to decide whether it wants to live with that or restore the democratic path for Venezuela. Those options seem to be narrowing.”
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