Photographer Wil Riera/Bloomberg

Venezuela’s Battered Opposition Bets on Elections

  • Governor races require submission, promise political capital
  • The traditional sound and fury climax Venezuela’s campaigns

As Venezuela prepares to elect 23 governors on Sunday in elections stalled for a year by the socialist regime, the opposition coalition has made inroads into vast slums and countryside once considered impenetrable.

President Nicolas Maduro’s administration called elections to release pressure after months of bloody protests, and to demonstrate that democracy is alive. But the economy’s crash and the spread of hunger across this oil-rich land has let his opponents go where they’ve rarely ventured.

Olivares, center, poses for a photo with a supporter in La Guaira, Venezuela, on Oct. 6.

Photographer: Wil Riera/Bloomberg

Take Jose Manuel Olivares, a 32-year-old congressman running for governor for a second time in the northern state of Vargas. In his 2012 campaign to represent the thin strip of coastline that hugs Caracas, slum dwellers screamed and threw trash. Last week, he was kissing cheeks in the shanty towns.

“Five years ago this was impossible,” said Olivares. “Our biggest challenge now isn’t the government, rather ourselves.”

Voting places are set to be open from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. Sunday, though they will accept voters as long as they arrive. Results will dribble in that night and Monday morning.

Polls widely predict that the opposition will win the vast majority of the 23 states up for grabs. Venebarometro, a Caracas consultancy, said that 52 percent of likely voters favored opposition candidates, compared with 28 percent for Maduro’s allies.

Traditional Spectacles

On Thursday, the last day permitted for campaigning, candidates across Venezuela launched their traditional closing arguments, complete with motorbike caravans, samba drums, flag-waving followers and sweaty speeches delivered atop sound trucks.

Carlos Ocariz, mayor of a Caracas municipality and an opposition coalition member, ventured into the Petare slum with a phalanx of drummers, yellow-shirted followers tossing sprays of fliers and an assistant who sported a haircut identical to that of his boss.

The procession passed through a steeply pitched part of the “informal city,” the streets lined with sidewalk mechanics, arepa shops and corner groceries.

“We’re going to set an example for the world,” said Carlos Ocariz. “We’re going to kick out the corrupt ones.”

Read more: The decline of Venezuela’s democracy -- a QuickTake Q&A

Facing a rout, the Maduro administration has tried to sow confusion and discourage foes. Socialist candidates are funneled vast resources and granted easy access to the dominant state media. The opposition gets a few daily minutes on private television and radio.

In places like Vargas, where late President Hugo Chavez personally saw to the rebuilding after mudslides almost two decades ago, the influence of the current socialist governor remains on display, as well as the challenges for the opposition.

Barbara Guzman, a 75-year-old social worker, pointed out dozens of red-metal roofs dotting the shanty town where Olivares campaigned.

“All of them were provided by the government,” she said. “The people here will never forget."

However, the ruling socialists seem to be on the defensive for the first time. The SEBIN intelligence police trail opposition candidates in clearly marked cars painted matte black -- even detaining Olivares’s brother at a rally last month. This week, the National Electoral Council abruptly relocated some 200 voting stations.

The biggest challenge may be the ballot itself. Despite repeated requests, the council has refused to remove unsuccessful opposition primary candidates from the roster, apparently in an attempt to confuse the voters. Ballots with a dozen names will contain as many as four who are no longer running.

“It’s all part of the same strategy: Demoralize the adversary,” said Edgard Guiterrez, director of Venebarometro.

Tentative Approach

But the opposition, whose leaders have called Maduro a dictator, are in the strange position of persuading a disillusioned electorate to vote in governors’ races arranged by a regime they have derided or risk ceding even more power.

After defeats in the 2015 congressional elections and the subsequent waves of unrest, Maduro took an increasingly authoritarian tack, convening a supreme body of loyalists this year and triggering U.S. sanctions against top officials. With the so-called constituyente rewriting the nation’s rules, the value of a governorship is not immediately obvious. In fact, Maduro has warned that governors must submit to the constituyente or be promptly removed.

“Everyone who goes out to vote is backing the national constituent assembly," Maduro said in a national address Thursday. “They’re saying enough of internationalism, no to sanctions.”

‘If I Vote’

Still, the offices offer valuable political capital in a land dominated by the chief executive; they control education and medical systems, police forces -- and budgets. The spotlight offers a springboard to the presidency. Most in the opposition see the race as a stepping stone toward regime change.

“The final battle is presidential elections,” Olivares said. “We have to do everything possible to arrive there”

They are depending on an electorate reeling from recent losses and years of unrelenting recession.

Yesenia Vargas, a 32-year-old hotel maid and centrist, watched as Olivares snapped selfies with neighbors in the coastal state that shares her name.

“If I vote, I’d vote for him,” she said. “They always promise something, but nothing ever changes.”

Daniel Sanchez, 28, a construction foreman, said many in his state were dubious that any politician could deliver. He had witnessed a robbery an hour before on the path of Olivares’s parade: A woman had her wedding ring taken at gunpoint.

“Things are bad,” he said, “but they can always get worse.”

— With assistance by Noris Soto, and Fabiola Zerpa

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