Venezuela’s opposition needs a new strategy

The ‘popular consultation’ it conducted in December has not done much to jump start a democratic transition.

Flanked by party members, Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido speaks during a press conference, a day after parliamentary elections, in Caracas, Venezuela, Monday, Dec. 7, 2020. Guaido rejected the results of Sunday's elections in which the government of President Nicolas Maduro declared victory in an election where the European Union said did not meet democratic standards and could not be considered credible
Flanked by party members, Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido speaks during a press conference, a day after parliamentary elections, in Caracas, Venezuela pm December 7, 2020 [AP/Ariana Cubillos]

This year has been incredibly difficult for the people of Venezuela. The humanitarian emergency, economic hardship, rampant inequality, and forced displacement were compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic, as the country slipped further away from democracy.

In December, the increasingly authoritarian President Nicolás Maduro went ahead with a legislative election, which all big opposition parties boycotted and the international community condemned due to major issues with an electoral process significantly skewed in favour of the ruling party. With a low turnout of 31 percent, the vote resulted in 91 percent of the seats going to Maduro loyalists.

In response, the opposition decided to conduct a “popular consultation” to reject the fraudulent election and demonstrate the people’s discontent with Maduro’s government. The referendum-style vote took place from December 7-12, and more than six million Venezuelans participated in person and online, according to the opposition.

The move was meant to boost the legitimacy – at home and abroad – of opposition leader Juan Guaidó, who last year announced the creation of an interim government in his capacity as speaker of the National Assembly – a right he was guaranteed under the Venezuelan constitution. However, it is hard to see how the “popular consultation” will achieve this desired result and how it will bring about the transition to democracy, long promised by the opposition.

Indeed, challenging an authoritarian regime is no easy task. Dissidents across the world have used different mechanisms, ranging from mass protests, electoral mobilisation, negotiations and international pressure to put an end to autocracy. Although Venezuelans have also consistently engaged in demonstrations, participated in elections, negotiations and dialogue processes and have received unprecedented international support, Maduro has retained power.

His government has effectively highjacked the electoral process and conducted polls so plagued with irregularities that voters have become increasingly reluctant to go to the polls. It has also imprisoned members of parliament, banned parties and contributed to a profound division among critics of the regime, making it near impossible to participate in elections under those conditions.

This has effectively prevented the opposition from using electoral tactics to challenge the ruling party. Having been deprived of an important political tool of mobilisation, opposition parties have had to look for other strategies to resist Maduro’s authoritarianism.

However, they have relied too much on the hope that international pressure would topple his regime, and have failed to build a mid to long-term plan of action. The popular consultation was a clear illustration of that failure.

Like the December 6 sham election, the consultation has done nothing to jump start a transition to democracy. Given its nature, it cannot extend Guaidó’s term as a speaker of the National Assembly, which expires in January, when the new legislature will take over.

There was also nothing new, constructive or forward-looking about its provisions. It asked people to vote on three points: one, Maduro must stop usurping power and presidential elections must be held; two, the December 6 elections must be rejected; and three, lobbying with the international community must continue to help rescue Venezuela’s democracy.

The move was pushed forward by those who already supported Guaidó and it failed to attract a wider coalition of political and social-economic actors that could have increased internal pressure on Maduro’s regime. There did not seem to be any major effort to reach out to dissatisfied opposition supporters, Chavista or former Chavista bases and elites. These groups would play an important role in any future transition process and the opposition should be seeking to reach an understanding with them on the domestic situation.

By holding this popular consultation, the opposition joined the government in stirring Venezuelans away from the very notion of competitive electoral processes. Running parallel votes only further deepens institutional bipolarity in Venezuela, eliminates the little institutional checks and balances remaining, and undermines the accountability of elected officials. This is especially damaging at a time when Venezuelans require urgent humanitarian support and adequate response to their most pressing needs.

The popular consultation also did nothing to answer important questions about the opposition’s own performance, leading an interim government. To whom will this continued interim government be accountable to? How and by whom will Venezuela’s assets abroad be managed? What mechanisms will Guaidó put in place to guarantee transparency in funds management, an area in which his interim government has performed poorly thus far?

With no clarity on these matters, it seems it is better to accept that the interim government has failed to deliver on its promises and should reorganise into a pro-democracy social movement.

To lead a resistance movement, the opposition does not need a government bureaucracy which is no longer legitimate or able to govern. Instead, it should focus on developing a new narrative and ties to autonomous civil society groups, promoting a transparent and collective leadership and trying to ease the suffering of the general population.

It must seek avenues to use Venezuelan funds abroad to alleviate the humanitarian crisis in the country. It must also work to restructure the existing sanctions regime, particularly sectoral sanctions, to avoid hurting the most vulnerable sectors of society. It also must present regular reports on how funds are being spent.

The hard work on the ground has to be done so that the opposition can have enough political weight to leverage international support for free and fair elections. Syria and Libya’s experiences show that backing interim governments does not necessarily lead to democratic transitions. There is still time to learn from their mistakes and take another, more successful route to democratic transition in Venezuela.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.