A participant in a rally in Venezuela. (AP)

A participant in a rally in Venezuela. (AP)


AS/COA Insider: José Enrique Arrioja on Venezuela's Announcement of an Early Election Date

"The transition to democracy boils down to a race against the clock," explains the AQ managing editor and AS/COA senior director of policy.

Venezuela's leader Nicólas Maduro had promised the country would see presidential elections in 2024. On March 6, he finally formalized the date: July 28. That Sunday, the late Hugo Chávez's birthday, is earlier than expected.

"The idea behind this is to play the surprise factor, to undermine the capabilities of the opposition to organize themselves and coalesce around a stronger position," explained José Enrique Arrioja, Americas Quarterly and AS/COA senior director of policy. The opposition now has only four months to decide who their presidential candidate will be—a process complicated by the disqualification of María Corina Machado, who won the October presidential primary by a landslide.

Arrioja explains why the choice of the date is surprising, obstacles for the opposition, and how the United States is reacting. He warns: "The scenario that we have before us is not an encouraging one and the transition to democracy boils down to a race against the clock."

AS/COA Online: The election date was set earlier than anticipated. It was thought that this would be an election around October, later in the year. Why is it going to be in July?

José Enrique Arrioja: The actual announcement took pretty much every single organization in Venezuela by surprise because, just last Friday, the National Assembly submitted a calendar proposal to hold the elections in the second half of the year. Only five days after that submission, the electoral authority came out to say, "Hey, surprise! We're going to be doing it in July." 

José Enrique Arrioja

So, yes, the elections will be held in the second half of the year as part of the agreement signed in October in Barbados. But they are giving only a bit more than four months for the opposition to prepare for the vote. 

The idea behind this is to play the surprise factor, and to undermine the capabilities of the opposition to organize themselves and coalesce around a stronger position. We have to take into consideration that the government owns the infrastructure, the political machinery, and, of course, the resources to do rallies, public meetings, and other campaign activities. 

In all, this creates a serious doubt about how free, how fair, how competitive this vote will be on July 28. 

AS/COA Online: The opposition now only has four months to figure out its strategy for this election. That starts with selecting a candidate. The overwhelming winner of a primary that happened in October, María Corina Machado, was disqualified from running in January. What is the way forward for the opposition now? 

Arrioja: Let's qualify the opposition. We are talking here about more than 20 political parties. And María Corina Machado is the founder and the leading candidate from a party called Vente Venezuela—a party created more than a decade ago. It's actually now the second-biggest political organization after the ruling PSUV party.

So, 20-plus political organizations need to actually decide what they're going to do with María Corina Machado's candidacy. It's certain that she's not going to be allowed to run, despite all the international pressure, the desire of different NGOs, and the overwhelming result of the primaries held on October 22 last year. 

The calendar is straightforward. On March 21, the official registration will open. It will close on March 25. By that day, the opposition needs to have a clear and definite answer about what they are going to be doing with María. Will she run? Will she try to take her candidacy through to the very end? That's an unlikely scenario. 

The most likely scenario is that the opposition will opt for a substitute candidate who will come from this group of political organizations. That candidate will still run under the Unitary Platform, which is the coalition of parties that are discussing and interacting with the government in this process. 

So right now, all eyes are on that specific decision.The opposition needs to decide whether to actually participate in this election with a substitute candidate. Otherwise, there is not going to be an election at all. 

AS/COA Online: In October 2023, the United States lifted some sanctions on the Maduro regime to try to coax it to guarantee free and fair elections in 2024. How do you think Washington will respond to the announcement of the election date? 

Arrioja: There are two important different developments to follow here. 

The first already happened just hours after the announcement when the White House sent a message to Congress announcing that it considers the state of emergency in Venezuela to still be occurring, and signifying that Venezuela still represents a threat to the national security of the United States. That executive order has already been renewed.

The second development pertains to the economic sanctions. In that specific case, it's widely expected that the United States will start to backtrack on some of the sanctions that were lifted back in October. The most important ones are economic sanctions on the country and some specific entities, as well as the import and export of oil.

However, in politics, nothing is written in stone, and the situation is very fluid. One factor to watch is the new special representative for the Western Hemisphere on the National Security Council: Daniel Erikson. He's replacing Juan Gonzalez and will take the reins by mid-March.

AS/COA Online: What is still to be determined for this election? What are you watching for in the next couple months? 

Arrioja: I'll be watching for the decisions to be made by the opposition. I'm also tracking how the government will respond to all of this. On March 15, the ruling party will formally announce its candidate for this contest, which is obviously is going to be Nicolás Maduro. Then we will find out what is going to happen with the formal registration of the opposition candidate. 

Beyond that, I will be watching how the international community responds to all of this because international observers, especially from the European Union and Carter Center, will need the time and conditions to actually be present in the country to oversee the legitimacy, the transparency, and the legality of the election. I will definitely be monitoring that as a way to see how successful the international community can be this time around in giving some shape and transparency to the process as a whole. 

The scenario that we have before us is not an encouraging one, and the transition to democracy boils down to a race against the clock.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.