Opposition Primaries Plagued by High Abstention as Party Elites Sow Divisions

Amid notably low turnout, Venezuelan opposition voters went to the polls over the weekend to choose 42 parliamentary candidates for the country’s rightwing Roundtable of Democratic Unity (MUD) coalition in the run-up to National Assembly elections later this year. 

By Lucas Koerner

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The MUD primary saw high rates of abstention following an elitist selection process (Lapatilla)
The MUD primary saw high rates of abstention following an elitist selection process (Lapatilla)
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Caracas, May 18, 2015 (venezuelanalysis.com) - Amid notably low turnout, Venezuelan opposition voters went to the polls over the weekend to choose 42 parliamentary candidates for the country’s rightwing Roundtable of Democratic Unity (MUD) coalition in the run-up to National Assembly elections later this year. 

Sunday’s primaries were held in just 33 of Venezuela’s 87 circuits and excluded 11 of the country’s 23 states, to the dissatisfaction of many voters. Ballots were initially to be cast in 38 circuits until voters were informed of an abrupt change just six days prior to the primary. 

The elections were organized via Venezuela’s internationally renowned National Electoral Center (CNE), considered the best in the world by former US president Jimmy Carter. Also present was an international observer team comprised of representatives of UNASUR headed by the regional organization's General Secretary Ernesto Samper. 

In circuits where elections actually took place, polling stations were reportedly empty. According to President of the MUD Primary Commission José Luis Cartaya, 543,723 voters cast ballots out of a total of 7,317,661 eligible voters in the 33 circuits. 

This figure, however, contradicted the number cited by the MUD’s own general secretary, Jesus Torrealba, who put turnout at 640,000. 

Moreover, the 42 candidates chosen by voters represent a mere 25% of the MUD’s total list of 168 candidates, with the overwhelming majority handpicked by the coalition’s leadership. In 2010, the MUD similarly left only 22 seats open for popular vote. 

According to opposition legislator Eduardo Gómez Sigala, this highly restrictive scope rendered the MUD primaries “a great swindle prejudiced against all those who want to exercise their right to vote to choose their candidates.”

Given these barriers to popular participation, low turnout was hardly a surprising outcome according to opposition activist Claudio Fermín. 

Blaming the “pathetic back-room politics” of party leaders who choose candidates in “private fixing”, Fermín lamented that “all of these parties in the MUD don’t convoke more than 15% of the country.”

“A small group of political operators have come to supplant hundreds of thousands of people who sympathize with the traditional parties [of the MUD] but are not being consulted regarding who should be their representatives," he added. 

Beyond back-room deal-making, the MUD’s postulation process is likewise highly selective, with prospective candidates obligated to pay 150,000 Bolivares ($23,842 USD), the equivalent of 25 monthly minimum wages, in order to be eligible. 

Additionally, in a blanket rejection of calls by Venezuela’s Women’s Congress and youth movements, the MUD leadership refused to implement gender or age quotas, resulting that a mere 10 of 110 primary candidates were women. 

One of the few women leaders who will stand as candidate for the opposition camp later this year is the divisive Maria Corina Machado.

The ultra-right ex-legislator, who has been linked to both the 2002 US-backed coup that temporarily ousted Hugo Chavez as well as last year’s violent opposition protests aimed at ousting the democratically elected President Nicolas Maduro, was tapped by the coalition's leadership to stand. 

Another controversial figure who will face the popular vote is former Mayor of San Cristobal, Tachira state, Daniel Ceballos, who was successfully voted in as parliamentary candidate in last weekend's primaries. Ceballos is currently behind bars for failing to rein in the violent protests and roadblocks which claimed the lives of at least 43 people in 2014 and which were heavily concentrated in the border state of Tachira. 

The low numbers of women's political participation in the opposition ranks starkly contrasts with the 60% women pre-candidates chosen to participate in the Unified Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) primaries slated for June 28. 

Likewise, in contraposition to the MUD’s elite selection process, the roughly 8,000 PSUV pre-candidates were nominated in 13,600 grassroots assemblies convened throughout the country last month. 

Marea Socialista Denied Permission to Launch Independent Candidates

The Trotskyist chavista collective Marea Chavista (MS) has announced that it will officially ask for a formal explanation from Venezuela's National Electoral Council (CNE) after the body refused the collective's petition for an independent candidate list for the upcoming elections. 

Released last Wednesday, the national electoral body’s resolution comes as a blow to the leftwing group, which announced earlier this month that it would launch its own candidates, independent of the PSUV, for the first time in this year’s parliamentary elections. 

“With this [CNE] resolution, it is sought to leave unrepresented the conscious, principled, and honest, socialist, democratic, anti-capitalist and anti-corruption vote that we aim to strengthen,” MS declared in a public statement published on Aporrea. 

Although the CNE did not give details as to why it refused to approve MS's petition, is also rejected the registration of 8 other organisations in the same resolution, including Maria Corina Machado's party, Vente Venezuela (Come on, Venezuela). According to Venezuelan newspaper, El Universal, the organisations still have time to apply again to the CNE before the elections but under an alternative legal name. 

Tensions between MS and the PSUV leadership have been on the rise since last November when it was revealed that several MS leaders had been suspended from the PSUV membership list and thus prohibited from participating in internal elections. MS, which coordinates the progressive website, Aporrea, has become increasingly critical of the government over the past two years. 

Although it maintains that its aim is to construct a "critical platform" within Chavismo, it has come under fire from other grassroots activists for being divisive and intransigent. 

Despite the negative from the CNE, MS leaders have vowed to “continue employing all forms of democratic struggle” and expressed willingness to take the case all the way to Venezuela’s Supreme Court if necessary.