After months of deadly protests, a regional election won by the ruling party, and objection by the opposition, Venezuela has entered a new political stage.
President Nicolas Maduro’s PSUV party picked up 18 of the 23 governorships that were up for grabs in last Sunday’s regional elections.
The win by the ruling socialists came as a shock to the opposition, which was projected to win based on early polling.
The opposition accused the government of election fraud – an allegation Nicolas Maduro denies. Opposition leaders also blamed the way the election was conducted, including the relocation of 200 voting centres days before the polls opened.
Calling for an audit of the results, opposition leaders boycotted the swearing-in ceremony for the elected governors on Wednesday, saying they would not attend a session before the new National Assembly, a body they consider unconstitutional.
Instead, they said they wanted to be sworn in by their legislative councils.
“They will only pledge before God and their respective legislative councils,” opposition leaders said in a statement last Thursday.
The government has agreed to the audit for transparency’s sake, but Maduro maintained the election results were the will of the people.
The October 15 elections were a product of the “conscience that the people have”, the president said during a televised press conference last week.
He added that the government won despite what he called “imperial forces” launching a “psychological, political and economic war” against his government.
Maduro has repeatedly warned that “whoever is not sworn and subordinated to the National Constituent Assembly will not be able to assume its role”.
In a public address on Friday, Maduro added that “somehow they have to learn … they only recognise the results when they win”.
The five newly-elected governors of the opposition agreed to begin a consultation process with all sectors of society to decide whether or not to be sworn in before the National Constituent Assembly.
But the regional elections and the opposition coalition’s (MUD) response to the results have revealed deep divisions within their ranks.
The day after the results were announced, several candidates and leaders of the opposition broke with the established narrative, with some conceding defeat despite the official coalition line that the elections were fraudulent.
According to local media, Henri Falcon, the current state governor of Lara, who lost against the Chavista deputy, Carmen Melendez, said that “one goes to an election to win or lose … we lost, it’s that that simple, and [now] we have to accept it”.
Alejandro Feo La Cruz, who was the governor of Carabobo, also acknowledged his defeat against Rafael Lacava.
The outgoing governor of the Amazonas region, Liborio Guarulla, who is part of the opposition, blamed MUD’s decision to not run a candidate from the Amazonas for the opposition’s loss.
“For 17 years, the Amazonas [region] walked with its indigenous people, and democracy, but the MUD in Caracas ended with this, by imposing a candidate representing its own interests,” Guarualla said on Twitter.
17 años Amazonas caminó en proyecto de ls pueblos indígenas y la Democracia MUD Caracas acabó con ella imponiendo candidato x sus intereses
— Liborio Guarulla (@LiborioGuarulla) October 17, 2017
Prior to the election, Vente Venezuela, an opposition movement led by Maria Corina Machado, detached itself from the coalition and abstained from participating in the elections, citing what Machado called an illegitimate process.
Machado, instead, called for more protests.
Opposition leader Enrique Ochoa Antich blamed Machado and other leaders for the opposition’s defeat.
“Thanks Maria Corina and Aristiguieta: Because of this abstentionist preaching, we lost Miranda, Carabobo and Lara,” Antich said on Twitter. “A huge favour you did to the government.”
Gracias, Ma.Corina y Aristiguieta: A causa de su prédica abstencionista, perdimos Miranda, Carabobo y Lara. Favor q le hicieron al gobierno!
— Enrique Ochoa Antich (@eochoa_antich) October 18, 2017
Javier Buenrostro, a professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, emphasised that such deep divisions within the opposition were a major reason for its defeat last Sunday.
“The opposition has had an ambivalent discourse,” Buenrostro told Al Jazeera.
“For me, that is the main reason that explains the defeat of the right, they fought an institutional battle, and called for votes, while at the same time they called for insurrections in the streets,” he explained.
Some within the opposition agreed.
Chuo Torrealba, the former executive secretary of MUD, was quoted in local media as saying there was no one within the opposition ranks capable of leading the country.
“A campaign was made by politicians for politicians, the same ones who called [for protests in the] street, began to call for votes … and they forgot other issues,” Torrealba said after the regional election results were announced.
For others, the opposition’s loss on October 15 represents deeper problems within the coalition that some analysts and supporters say its leaders have yet to acknowledge.
“The ruling party has been bathed in democracy … and the only ones who do not realise the crisis they are living, are the representatives of the opposition,” Saverio Vivas, a politician who sympathises with the opposition, told Al Jazeera.
“People are disregarded by the incoherent behaviour they’ve shown,” Vivas added.
Leonardo Bruzail, an opposition supporter, also said that Venezuelans have “lost the trust in opposition leaders”.
“What we are facing is a disaster, we are experiencing an institutional, political, economic, social crisis. I don’t know how we will recover from this,” Bruzail told Al Jazeera.
Highlighting the overall percentages of votes in the regional elections, Buenrostro also noted that there is still a valid political space for the opposition.
“There isn’t a major difference in votes, these were close elections, but the territorial control and the hard vote gave the government the triumph,” he said.
Of the more than 11 million people who voted, 52 percent supported government candidates, while 45 percent supported the opposition, according to the National Electoral Council.
“Venezuela is not the dictatorship that many want to sell, it is a democracy with authoritarian tendencies, but there is space for opposition,” Buenrostro said.
“Ultimately, people decided not to vote for violence … and violence was identified with a faction of the opposition.”
Venezuela is not the dictatorship that many want to sell, it is a democracy with authoritarian tendencies, but there is space for opposition.
As uncertainty over the direction of the opposition coalition mounts, and with new threats of new sanctions from various international players, some worry the economy, which is already suffering from high inflation and food and medicine shortages, will only continue to be aggravated.
“The government has improved its position and weakened the opposition … however, they have sacrificed the nation … and the money spent on political campaigns will intensify the situation,” Ronal Rodriguez, a researcher at the Venezuelan Observatory at the University of Rosario in Colombia, told Al Jazeera.
Venezuela’s gross domestic product (GDP) is expected to contract by six percent next year, after shrinking an estimated 12 percent in 2017, according to IMF estimations.
Expressing concerns over allegations of election “irregularities”, some members of the European Union said it was examining “appropriate measures” to help resolve the political crisis in the country.
The United States is also considering a possible measure against Venezuela’s oil imports, which is one of the main sources of income for the country.
The Lima group, formed by Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay and Peru, will hold a meeting on Thursday in Canada with the intention of accentuating the pressure on Maduro’s regime.
For Rodriguez, the possibility of new sanctions, combined with last Sunday’s result, means the government will have to respond to not only further economic deterioration but also new pressures within and outside the country.
“They [Maduro’s government] will have to respond to the challenges that imply an economic deterioration, and a social deterioration that has led to the departure of millions of Venezuelans,” Rodriguez said.
“An immediate reaction of [last Sunday’s] results have been more people leaving the country especially to countries like Colombia.”