Juan Pablo Guanipa is running for governor of the western Venezuelan state of Zulia, and as he campaigns in the state capital of Maracaibo, people complain of food shortages and hyperinflation.
The solution, Guanipa tells them, is to vote against the ruling Socialist Party — which controls 20 of Venezuela’s 23 states — and to elect opposition candidates like himself.
It’s unclear whether voters will get that chance.
In this oil-rich country, the socialist government used to be an electoral powerhouse; back in the 2000s, when Venezuela was flush with petrodollars, the late socialist leader Hugo Chavez and his political allies won nearly every popular vote. But Venezuela is now mired in a deep economic crisis, and that has led to a steep drop in support for President Nicolás Maduro, who seems to have soured on testing the will of the people.
The elections had been scheduled for last December, but have been indefinitely postponed. Critics claim the Maduro government made this decision after polls predicted that ruling party candidates would lose nearly every state.
Last year, the Maduro government canceled a recall referendum that could have removed the president from power, and it has suspended voting for everything from city councils and labor unions to student governments at public universities.
It wasn’t always like this — under Chavez, Venezuela called elections all the time with the socialists nearly always coming out on top. When Chavez died in 2013, Maduro won a snap election to replace him.
“[The Socialist Party] loved having elections when they used to win them,” says Phil Gunson, a Venezuela analyst for the International Crisis Group. “They used to boast all the time: ‘We’ve had 18 elections and 17 of them we’ve won. We’re terribly democratic.’ ”
Gunson says the government grew skeptical of elections after the opposition won the 2015 legislative elections in a landslide.
“They say: ‘There isn’t enough money, there’s an economic crisis,’ that elections are not the priority. I mean, these are all just excuses,” Gunson says. “Everybody knows that the real reason the government doesn’t want to have elections is because it’s going lose them.”
In a speech on Tuesday, Maduro insisted that presidential elections scheduled for next year would go forward, but it’s unclear how fair the balloting will be. Critics point out that Maduro wields vast control over the government’s National Electoral Council, as well as the courts, the armed forces and the media.
His government has waylaid the two most popular opposition candidates — Leopoldo Lopez, who was jailed three years ago, and former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, who on Friday was banned from running for office for 15 years on what he calls trumped-up corruption allegations.
“One by one the Maduro administration has taken all of his political rivals out of the game,” said Jose Miguel Vivanco of Human Rights Watch. “If anyone still buys Maduro’s facade of democracy, the disqualification of Capriles from running for office should bring that fantasy to an end.”
In addition, critics say, Maduro’s administration is now working to sideline opposition parties, demanding that they gather thousands of member signatures to prove they have a legitimate following. If they don’t, the parties will be declared illegal.
Maribel Castillo, an activist with an opposition party called Avanzada Progresista, was just one of many people scrambling to register members of her party before the deadline. She accuses electoral officials of sabotaging the process by relocating registration sites at the last minute.
Avanzada Progresista did manage to secure enough signatures, but several other parties failed and will be outlawed. The National Electoral Council did not respond to NPR’s request for comment.
Back at his campaign headquarters, Zulia gubernatorial candidate Guanipa points out that the opposition’s fight is for more than political posts.
“Venezuela has become a dictatorship,” Guanipa says. “That means we have to fight for the right just to have the elections.”