Oct 30, 2023 - World

Venezuela suspends opposition leader's win despite fair elections promise

Venezuelan opposition leader Maria Corina Machado stands with her hand to her chest next to several people

The Venezuelan opposition's presidential candidate, María Corina Machado (center), during a proclamation ceremony in Caracas on Oct. 26. Photo: Gaby Oráa/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Venezuela's top court on Monday suspended the results of presidential primaries held by the opposition coalition despite an agreement this month to hold free elections.

Why it matters: Experts say the preliminary decision is an attempt to push the opposition out of the 2024 race and likely violates an agreement signed earlier this month by the government of President Nicolás Maduro and the opposition. That agreement resulted in the U.S. easing sanctions on Venezuelan oil, gas and gold.

State of play: María Corina Machado, a former member of Congress, last week won the primary election to represent the opposition coalition, Plataforma Unitaria. She received more than 2 million votes from Venezuelans in the country and abroad.

  • Attorney General Tarek William Saab, a member of the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), immediately said his office would investigate the organizers of the primary election for alleged identity theft, money laundering and conspiracy in the primaries.
  • The high court said Machado's victory should be suspended as evidence is gathered in the case.
  • Machado and the opposition say the Oct. 22 vote was transparent and fair.

A State Department spokesperson in a statement to Axios Latino on Monday said the opposition's primary election was an important milestone and that the Maduro government should uphold the commitments it made in the agreement, adding that the U.S. will take action otherwise.

What they're saying: The moves by the prosecutor and judges allied with Maduro stem from fear that Machado could be a significant force in the presidential elections, says Phil Gunson, senior analyst for the Andean region at Crisis Group International.

  • The intention is to plant seeds of doubt among Venezuelans about the opposition's actions and to force the hand of the opposition coalition, he tells Axios Latino.
  • "They want the opposition to be scared off or get desperate about its options and electoral viability," Gunson says.
  • Gunson adds that the PSUV may think the dissident coalition will return to its former strategy of boycotting elections it considered undemocratic and open the door for Maduro — who's been in power since 2013 — to win by default.

What to watch: Gunson warns the Maduro administration could get more forceful if the opposition continues to campaign.

  • He points to Nicaragua's most recent presidential election, where all opposition candidates were jailed before polls opened, then stripped of their citizenship and forcefully exiled after President Daniel Ortega was declared to have "won."
  • Gunson also says he's watching for how the U.S. reacts if Maduro's government continues to go after the opposition.

Background: UN experts, as well as other international groups and local NGOs, have warned for years that the Maduro regime tries to stifle protests through repression, torture and arbitrary arrests.

  • Machado, for example, has been barred from holding public office for up to 15 years over unproven financial crimes.
  • Machado says the attempts to bar her are "useless" maneuvers to stop the opposition.
  • The U.S. has accused Saab and others from the PSUV of undermining democracy, committing corruption and censorship.
  • They deny the accusations, saying they've acted within the margins of the constitution and claim the U.S. is acting out "imperial aggression."

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