Venezuelan officials moved swiftly this week to call an early presidential election, acting just hours after a breakdown in talks between the government and opposition over how to conduct the vote.
The election will be held April 22, said Tibisay Lucena, head of the government-controlled National Electoral Council, an institution whose credibility to oversee the contest has been questioned by the opposition.
Venezuela traditionally has held its presidential elections late in the year, and the United States along with several countries in Europe and Latin America have condemned the rush to hold the vote so early, saying it undercuts political negotiations and is unfair to the opposition. President Nicolás Maduro has already launched his campaign for a second term and currently stands as the only candidate as Venezuela continues to sink deeper into an economic crisis of high inflation and food shortages.
Talks on resolving Venezuela’s political divide fell apart on Wednesday in the Dominican Republic, with the two sides accusing one another of grandstanding and negotiating in bad faith.
Dominican President Danilo Medina, one of the international mediators, said the talks had entered an “indefinite recess” when Venezuelan government negotiators returned home Tuesday night after signing a “draft agreement” that was unacceptable to the opposition.
The head of the opposition’s delegation, Julio Borges, urged the government to reconsider its stance while reiterating that he won’t sign an agreement that puts Venezuela’s democracy at risk. He called on Venezuela’s government to accept the opposition’s counter-proposal.
Among its demands made public on Wednesday, the opposition wants the United Nations to observe the election and the government to guarantee that millions of Venezuelans living abroad could cast their vote.
“If the government wasn’t afraid of a free election it would have no choice but to sign our document, which is based on Venezuela’s laws,” Borges said.
Before cheering supporters in Caracas, Maduro signed a draft of the government’s “agreement,” which the opposition coalition rejected. But he said that the dialogue remains alive.
In the absence of a deal, Venezuela’s battle for power could become a lot uglier.
The Constituent Assembly, which is controlled by the government but is considered illegitimate by many foreign governments, had called last month for the election to take place by the end of April.
It remains to be seen whether the opposition — or large parts of it — will boycott the contest, hoping that many countries won’t recognise the results. The ballot could also prompt the US to follow through on a threat to cut off oil shipments from Venezuela, which is an OPEC nation.
Four-digit inflation and widespread shortages of everything from cash to food have damaged support for the government. But Maduro is betting he can still win re-election after having sidelined several prominent opponents and crushed anti-government protests last year that left more than 130 people dead.
Luis Emilio Rondón, the only member of the electoral commission who has sided with the opposition, said after the announcement that the rushed presidential date jeopardises the possibility of a free and fair election. “Less time, less guarantees,” he said.