Venezuelan constitutional assembly orders elections by end of April
'If the world applies sanctions, we'll apply elections,' ruling party deputy leader says
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro said Tuesday he is ready to seek re-election after his allies pushed forward voting in a move widely seen as a bid to capitalize on disarray in the Venezuelan opposition and consolidate power amid a free-falling economy.
Maduro's comment came soon after the pro-government constitutional assembly ordered the presidential election be held by the end of April — months ahead of when the country's presidential voting has traditionally taken place.
He said the ruling socialist party would settle on a single consensus candidate at a Feb. 4 convention. If selected, he said, he would relish the opportunity to measure up against his opponents. He called on the National Electoral Council to set as near a date as possible for the presidential election.
"They should find the closest date, to get this out of the way so we can begin to make a great revolution," a jubilant Maduro told hundreds of red-shirted supporters at a rally to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the end of Venezuela's last military dictatorship. "If it was in my hands, the election would be this weekend."
While Venezuelans had been expecting an early election, the announcement came as somewhat of a surprise because talks between the opposition and government have been taking place in the Dominican Republic for weeks — so far without a breakthrough. The opposition has been using those talks to push for guarantees that voting will be free and fair, with the participation of independent foreign monitors.
Foreign ministers from 14 mostly conservative Latin American governments meeting in Chile to discuss Venezuela criticized the announcement of an early election, saying in a harshly worded statement that it was "impossible" for the ballot's outcome to be credible under current conditions. Mexico, one of several foreign governments mediating the talks in the Dominican Republic, said it was withdrawing its support for the talks to protest the Maduro government's move.
Maduro seemed unfazed by the threat of more international rebuke. He settled on a frequent refrain to accuse his opponents of taking orders from the Trump administration, which has slapped financial and travel restrictions on dozens of top Venezuelan officials in recent months, including Maduro himself.
"Don't go running," Maduro taunted his opponents during the rally. "Don't abandon Venezuela's democracy."
Maduro was accompanied at the rally by Diosdado Cabello, the No. 2 leader of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela. It was Cabello, seen as Maduro's biggest internal rival, who earlier Tuesday proposed holding the election by the end of April, saying it was the best way to counter criticism by the United States and others that Venezuela is descending into dictatorship.
"If the world applies sanctions, we'll apply elections," said Cabello, referring to Monday's decision by the European Union to impose financial and travel restrictions on him and six other top officials. "Nobody is going to come and give us lessons or tell us what to do.… The Venezuelan people have the right to choose their own destiny."
While Cabello didn't explicitly endorse Maduro he praised him as the hand-picked successor of the late Hugo Chavez and said that the revolution would face no obstacles settling on a single candidate.
"We're not going to have any problem," Cabello said to thunderous applause during Tuesday's raucous session of the constitutional assembly.
The order tasks the pro-government National Electoral Council with setting the precise date for the upcoming presidential vote.
According to Venezuela's constitution, a new six-year presidential term must begin in January 2019. While elections can be held any time before then, voting typically is held in the final three months of the year to avoid an extended transition.
Although polls show Venezuelans overwhelmingly blame Maduro for widespread food shortages and triple-digit inflation that has pulverized wages, the opposition was left rudderless as several prominent politicians were barred from office or forced into exile last year following a deadly protest movement seeking the president's removal.
Compounding the opposition's woes, several parties boycotted a recent election for mayors, leading the ruling socialist party to sweep the contest. The opposition alleged there weren't enough guarantees the vote would be free and fair, but the partial boycott highlighted tensions over how best to confront Maduro, whose decision to create the all-powerful constitutional assembly alongside the opposition-controlled National Assembly has been condemned by several foreign governments, including the U.S. and Canada.
Nonetheless, opposition leaders say they will field a single candidate to take on Maduro.
"Today, tomorrow, the next day: the only real truth is that this government and its ruling clic are abhorred by the immense majority of Venezuelans," tweeted former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, who lost to Maduro by a thin margin in 2013 but is barred from competing in the upcoming race over what he says are trumped-up charges of administrative improbity as a governor. "If our people are given the right to decide, they will have to leave."
Geoff Ramsey, a Venezuela researcher at the Washington Office on Latin America, said that by holding the election sooner, the ruling party is gambling that its chances would only suffer along with the economy the longer it waited.
"Despite the obstacles to the opposition right now, it's to their advantage to get behind a single candidate and encourage people to vote, even though the deck is stacked against them," he said.
In an article for the website Supuesto Negado, sociologist Ociel Lopez concluded after analyzing the results on the three elections held in Venezuela in 2017 that "a coherent opposition with an outsider candidate who channels discontent like the opposition did in 2015 has a big chance of winning the 2018 presidential election."
With cynicism toward all politicians running high among Venezuelans, many are clamouring for a nontraditional, outside candidate, Reuters reports..
The name of Lorenzo Mendoza, billionaire head of private food company Polar, is on many people's lips, and he has done well in at least one public opinion poll.
"The majority want an outsider," said Dimitris Pantoulas, a Caracas-based political consultant.
With files from Reuters and CBC News