Venezuela’s opposition is hoping a presidential nominating contest will rally supporters after years of futile attempts to unseat the government of President Nicolas Maduro, but it faces deep voter apathy as people struggle to afford food and other basics.
Opposition lawmakers recently named a new three-person leadership for their parallel legislature, which is recognized by many Western countries as Venezuela’s last remaining democratic body.
Now, they need a presidential candidate who can persuade voters to make him or her the next leader of Venezuela.
But after years in the political wilderness, the opposition is disjointed – at a time when Maduro is enjoying renewed relations with neighbors Colombia and Brazil and some loosened U.S. restrictions.
And voters are disillusioned.
“People don’t pay attention to politics,” said 29-year-old mother of three Maria Eugenia Aray, who lives in Guatire, near capital Caracas, and said she might participate in the primary. “The economic crisis is what people are bothered by, because of low incomes.”
The monthly minimum wage is equivalent to $6 – about the cost of a four-pack of toilet paper. People working for private companies earn more, but public sector salaries have stagnated, leading to recent protests by teachers.
Despite slight economic recovery last year, inflation was 234% and cuts to electricity and water are common.
The opposition committee tasked with scheduling the vote and defining whether it will take place with help from electoral authorities – considered by many to be an arm of Maduro’s government – is expected to release details of its plans on Feb. 15.
The presidential contest is tentatively scheduled for 2024.
Several declared and likely candidates in the primary – at least a dozen people from various opposition parties have said they will run – told Reuters apathy and frustration with the opposition are top challenges for attracting voters.
“The tiredness has to do with the extreme socioeconomic situation that we’re living through,” said candidate Juan Pablo Guanipa, a member of the Justice First party, adding that the opposition’s failure to unseat socialist president Maduro was also a factor.
Maduro took office after his mentor Hugo Chavez’s death and won his own mandate in 2013. Despite overseeing hyperinflation, a 2018 election the United States and others regard as fraudulent, and economic collapse that has led to the emigration of some 7 million people, he has proven resilient at retaining power.
More than 69% of people in a recent survey by pollster Delphos said a change in leadership is needed to improve the economy. But just under 26% said they would definitely vote in the primary and nearly 30% said they definitely would not.
“The challenge is how to make the primary credible,” said Juan Guaido, who ran the opposition’s interim government from 2019 until he was replaced by the triumvirate in January. He is expected to declare his candidacy.
Government control of media puts the opposition on the back foot, he said, “as if we’re in 1950.”
Most people feel little connection with politics, said Luis Vicente Leon, head of pollster Datanalisis. “The challenge to stimulate participation is great and not at all easy,” he said.
Some opposition activists have begun weekend campaigning in Caracas and other cities to get out the vote, while others have taken to social media.
“In this country there is a culture of voting. As political processes approach people get interested,” said Henrique Capriles, who was the opposition’s presidential candidate in 2013 and is now barred from running by a court order.
However, Maduro and his allies have sown distrust in the democratic process, Capriles said, and the opposition has not yet successfully restored it.
Former lawmaker and primary candidate Maria Corina Machado said the 2024 presidential race would be “a unique opportunity” to bring change.
“It’s urgent that we coordinate and give strength and legitimacy to a new political direction,” she said.
But some Venezuelans hard-pressed to make ends meet remain impervious to opposition efforts.
“We’re poorer every day and I don’t think more elections will be the definite solution to this disaster,” said vegetable seller David Lugo, 54, who lives in formerly prosperous oil city Maracaibo. “The economic situation is so hard that (voting) is a waste of time.”