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As election looms, Venezuelans see-saw between hope and fear

‘I hope people will come out to vote, because there are many people who ask for change but when they have the opportunity to do so they don't participate.’

Pictured are people standing in front of a white wall. At the centre of the wall is a painting of the Venezuelan flag. Beneath is stands a man with his hands behind his back. Iván Reyes/TNH
On 30 June, many Venezuelans participated in a rehearsal officially meant to help citizens familiarise themselves with the candidates and electronic voting system. Here, people cast their mock votes in Catia, in western Caracas.

Weeks before polling day in Venezuela’s pivotal presidential election, the gulf in outcome is too wide for many to process: Either Nicolás Maduro’s authoritarian rule will continue or – whisper it quietly – an opposition outsider could be allowed to triumph.

If the increasingly unpopular Maduro steals the election, many Venezuelans say they would consider migrating. The ongoing economic and humanitarian crisis has already led more than 7.7 million people to leave since 2015.

On 30 June, thousands of Venezuelans headed to the polls for an election rehearsal. Such events have been held since 1999 and are seen as a useful tool for the government in power to measure its voter base and mobilisation capabilities.

Venezuelan photojournalist Iván Reyes took to the streets of the capital to speak to voters and see what it might mean for 28 July, when Maduro and opposition front runner Edmundo González Urrutia face off for real.

The mock vote was officially meant to help citizens familiarise themselves with the candidates – there will be 10 on the ticket – and the technical changes the National Electoral Council (CNE) has introduced to the electronic voting system. But it was also a useful opportunity for Maduro to gauge how things look as he faces his lowest levels of popularity – 20-25%, according to recent polls – since taking office in 2013.

The president, who won an election widely seen as fraudulent in 2018, has unsuccessfully tried to weaken the opposition by banning its leader, María Corina Machado, from running after she overwhelmingly won the primary, and by arresting several other opposition members and activists.

Despite those hurdles, 74-year-old diplomat and political outsider Edmundo González Urrutia has emerged as a popular opposition front runner. Unknown before to most of the electorate, González has rapidly gained momentum and leads the opinion polls by far in a country where citizens have grown weary of increasing authoritarianism and an unrelenting humanitarian crisis.

For the estimated 28.8 million Venezuelans who remain in the country, every aspect of life has been disrupted by a crisis that Maduro blames on US sanctions but that experts say is mostly down to corruption and mismanagement. Basic services like electricity, internet access, and water are patchy; malnutrition is on the rise; the healthcare system has collapsed; and children receive poor or no education. Inflation rates are also among the highest in the world.

As he walked around Caracas reporting on the election rehearsal, surveying long lines of would-be voters outside polling centres, Reyes found a mood of expectation ahead of the big day, but also a mixture of fear and trepidation.

An advanced voting system that can't be trusted

In room with white walls people are in the process of casting their votes. On the right we see a woman depositing a vote in a carton box. On the left we see a woman standing next to a man writing on a desk.

Venezuela has one of the most advanced electoral systems in the world. It is completely electronic, which makes the possibility of modifying votes almost nil. 

Voting machines have fingerprint readers and also print out a voucher for voters to deposit in a box, as a double way of safeguarding their ballots. 

But there is still room for irregularities. The opposition accused electoral authorities of manipulating the electronic system to block the registration of Corina Yoris as a candidate. The opposition had picked her after Machado was banned from running, but the CNE didn’t allow her access to the automated system.

Random citizens also faced problems trying to register. Many complained that the CNE failed to set up enough registration points for all voters to be able to update their electoral information. 

Abroad, meanwhile, Venezuelan migrants denounced a lack of information about the process at their consulates, as well as the existence of strict requirements that make it very difficult – sometimes even impossible – for them to register.

In Argentina, for example, the NGO Alianza por Venezuela (Alliance for Venezuela) reported that only 2% of Venezuelans who were entitled to vote would be able to do so.

Chavismo dwindles in its strongholds

People stand in line outdoors.

Venezuelans form a line to vote in Catia, one of the main bastions of Chavismo in the capital. Named after the late president Hugo Chávez, who was president from 1998-2013 and Maduro’s mentor, this brand of left-wing populism used to be incredibly popular but has lost its lustre due to Venezuela’s economic collapse.

In Barinas, Chávez's home state, the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) lost the regional elections for the first time in 2022 – a significant blow for Maduro, who could now face similar results in other districts.

Maduro’s attempt to cling to power

A man walks past a mural on a wall. Over a neon green background the mural shows to hands clasped together. Written on it in Spanish is: Tengo fe en Maduro. Which translates to: I have faith in Maduro.

In Caracas, displays of support for Maduro and Chávez on the walls of buildings are commonplace. A few for opposition candidates have appeared in recent days. 

More than a decade after he became president, following Chávez’s death, Maduro is now confronted by his toughest political challenge, with many Venezuelans daring to believe he might even relinquish power

Despite punitive US sanctions that helped to cripple Venezuela’s vital oil and gas sector, Maduro has clung to power by forging deals with Iran to maintain fuel supplies, and by stepping up repressive measures against the media and political opposition.

As his popularity has waned, Maduro has sought new allies, in different economic sectors and with the Evangelical church (under the Venezuelan constitution, the state is supposed to be secular).

Maduro’s militia maintains order

People stand outside a voting centre.

A member of the Bolivarian militia – a reserve force composed of civilian volunteers founded by Chavez in 2008 to assist the armed forces – guards the lines at a polling station in Petare, east of Caracas.

This militia’s role has always been controversial for serving political purposes and working as a direct defence line for Maduro. On election days, the militia is deployed to maintain order in and around the voting centres.

Election rehearsals are mostly attended by those who have registered with the ruling party or with the community councils that are in charge – among other things – of delivering government-subsidised food aid in what are called CLAP boxes.

Public officials and government security personnel who are required to report their participation in mock votes to their superiors also cast their ballot. 

‘This is how we can achieve change’

Victoria Montañez, 18, is pictured in a portrait. She wears a striped shirt and dark-rimmed glasses.

Victoria Montañez, 18, will cast her ballot for the first time on 28 July. She told The New Humanitarian she has been oscillating between hope and fear. 

“I hope people will come out to vote, because there are many people who ask for change but when they have the opportunity to do so they don't participate,” she said, while waiting in line at a polling centre at the Bolivarian University of Venezuela, in a south-central part of the city where the opposition usually wins. “This is how we can achieve change,” Montañez added.

Young Venezuelans are expected to play a crucial role on 28 July as they have expressed a greater interest in voting this time around than in previous elections. 

A recent survey by the Student Movement of the Central University of Venezuela showed that more than 80% of 19,000 students between 18 and 21 years of age intended to vote.

Petare: A key battleground

A line of people lining up to vote outside.

Petare, in eastern Caracas, is one of the most densely populated shanty towns in the world, and therefore a highly coveted area for candidates running in the election. 

With 351,000 registered and eligible voters, it’s the district with the largest number of voters in the country. Whoever wins here is expected to triumph in the general election. 

During the rehearsal, Maduro’s supporters were keen to show their ability to mobilise people, especially the elderly, who waited up to two hours in line to cast their mock votes.

“We have to come to the rehearsal to know how to vote on election day and not waste time,” one elderly man, who did not give his name, told The New Humanitarian as he waited for his turn.

Maduro’s loss of support

People stand in line. Behind them is a mural of the face of Hugo Chavez over a Venezuelan flag.

To attract voters in lower-income areas badly affected by the economic crisis, Maduro’s supporters have tried to revive the cult of personality that propped up Chávez. 

But Chavismo is facing a serious challenge: Since the 2018 election, some of Maduro's political allies, such as the Venezuelan Communist Party, have withdrawn their support and publicly announced they would back another candidate. They claim they have moved away from the so-called Revolución Bolivariana (Bolivarian revolution) – aimed at promoting Latin American patriotism and building a new kind of socialism – that Chávez started. 

Polls point to González win

body08-venezuela- elections-rehearsal.jpg

Dozens of people wait on 30 June to cast their mock vote at the polling centre at the Bolivarian University of Venezuela. 

Opposition candidates gave little credence to the rehearsal and refused to mobilise their voters, framing it as part of Maduro’s manoeuvres to control the election, but they still sent local organisers to oversee technical aspects of the process. 

Several polls show González leading the contest with more than 50% support, compared to a maximum of 25% for Maduro. According to the consulting firm Datanálisis, more than 70% of Venezuelans plan to vote on 28 July. Whether Maduro and his government will respect the results remains to be seen.

Edited by Daniela Mohor.

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