Venezuelans voted on Sunday to pick the opposition candidate who’ll try to end a quarter century of socialist rule in 2024 elections.
(Bloomberg) — Venezuelans voted on Sunday to pick the opposition candidate who’ll try to end a quarter century of socialist rule in 2024 elections.
Former lawmaker María Corina Machado is the clear favorite among the ten candidates, even though she’s banned from holding public office.
Large crowds overwhelmed voting centers across Caracas during an independently organized primary in which voters struggled to identify their polling centers. Despite efforts to publicize the vote, President Nicolás Maduro’s government had blocked a website that informs citizens where to cast their ballot.
“I want my grandchildren to have a future and not have to leave the country,” Nestor Gómez, a 63-year-old handyman, said outside his voting center near the main square of notorious Caracas slum Petare. “This is our say to change the current situation.”
Residents in a middle class part of the capital brought their own tables and chairs to set up nine polling stations on the sidewalk, where thousands have been lining up to vote since early morning, said local coordinator Mirna Azancote.
Near the end of an approximately three-hour-long line, 20-year-old Luis Moya waited to vote for the first time.
“This government wants young people not to take politics seriously. I have friends who aren’t even registered to vote because they think: for what? But this is the only right we have left,” Moya said.
The primary is being held days after Maduro signed an agreement for fairer conditions in next year’s vote in return for an easing of US economic sanctions.
Whoever wins is expected to face Maduro, 60, when he runs for a third six-year term next year, and could also be a new unifying force for the fragmented opposition.
Here’s what to expect:
Machado, 56, who describes herself as a centrist, is the frontrunner. One recent poll found she had 87% of voting intention among those with a high probability of casting their ballots.
Still, she faces serious obstacles to becoming president. Maduro’s government prohibits her from leaving the country and, in June, ruled that she’s ineligible to hold public office. Machado says the disqualification is meaningless and hopes that a victory this weekend will force Maduro to lift the ban.
Read More: Venezuela Opposition Leader Machado Barred From Elections
Machado wants to revive Venezuela’s battered economy through market-friendly policies and widespread privatization, including of the key oil sector. She would also seek to roll Venezuela’s massive debt pile into a single bond.
None of the other candidates is anywhere close, according to local pollster Delphos. Democratic Action party candidate, Carlos Prosperi, also a former lawmaker, is in second place with 2.1% support among those with a high probability of casting their ballots, according to Delphos.
“Today we honor Venezuelans abroad, persecuted, expelled from the country, others in prison and even dead,” Machado said before casting her vote. “Today is just one step, our duty isn’t accomplished yet.”
The opposition decided to fund and run the primaries on its own once the government announced changes inside the electoral body. These included naming Elvis Amoroso, a close Maduro ally, as the body’s president. Amoroso was responsible for barring key opposition leaders from running, including Machado.
The decision to organize the primaries independently has raised doubts about the process and its results. The vote will not use machines or traditional voting centers, relying instead on paper ballots and unfamiliar spaces for voters, ranging from town squares, to parking lots and private homes volunteered by Venezuelans.
The organizers stuck to their decision after rejecting a late offer of support by the electoral authority this month, for fear of political interference. They say they have secured more than 3,000 spaces with approximately 5,000 voting tables. The committee says it has trained tens of thousands of volunteers.
Recent surveys estimate as few as 1.5 million people will vote on Sunday, nearly half the number who participated in the 2012 opposition primaries after the government blocked the website on voting centers.
Relying on public spaces might also discourage voters in poorer neighborhoods where government supporters use their control of food and financial subsidies to reward loyalists and punish opponents.
Voting centers will be open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., or until there are no more voters in line. A group of national organizations will be observing the process. Partial results will be published on Sunday evening, according to the organizing committee.
This week, the government and a coalition of opposition groups restarted talks intended to ensure a more competitive presidential race next year.
As a goodwill gesture, the US Treasury issued a six-month license authorizing transactions involving Venezuelan oil and gas. It also lifted a ban on secondary trading of some Venezuelan sovereign bonds and debt and equity issued by the state oil company Petroleos de Venezuela SA.
Read more: Defaulted Venezuelan Bonds Soar After US Lifts Trading Ban
There’s still a question over whether Maduro will accede to demands for deep electoral reforms that would allow the opposition to compete fairly, Teneo analyst Nicholas Watson wrote in a note. He may be reluctant to do this at a time when the economy is weak, he himself is unpopular, and Machado is galvanizing support, Watson said.
Read More: Venezuela’s Government Resumes Talks With Maduro’s Opposition
–With assistance from Fabiola Zerpa and Nicolle Yapur.
(Updates with details from Sunday’s vote starting on the third paragraph.)
More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com
©2023 Bloomberg L.P.