‘Shining hour’ for democracy in Venezuela?

Bottom line: Making good on its threat to raise the stakes in the upcoming election, the opposition on Friday submitted a “contestant list” to the electoral authority, seeking opposition support for the challenge to the validity of the result. The opposition has long argued that, with the polarization at the ballot box leading many registered voters to abstain, President Nicolas Maduro cannot be assured of re-election. This means the opposition is emboldened to press ahead with efforts to instigate a political coup.

By Tyler Henzel, Global Public Square

Five days from now, Venezuelans will go to the polls in what many are already calling the “shining hour” for democracy in their country. But their choice will shape not only the fate of Venezuela but of the region and the world.

Seventy-six million Venezuelans, more than one in two, will be eligible to vote for a new parliament in what looks to be an unusually close race. But the final result is already in doubt. While polls show Hugo Chávez’s successor, Nicolás Maduro, maintaining a slim lead, it is likely many voters will stay home, nervous that they will ultimately be forced to choose between a worse option and a new coup d’état.

Hard numbers and opportunities to test this fear are already on the table. A public opinion survey conducted by the Miami-based Ipsos pollster in March shows many undecided Venezuelans leaning towards abstention. The head of Ipsos says two-thirds of Venezuelans do not believe the country’s current electoral process is transparent, and 90% of Venezuelans, by a wide margin, believe in the national and international opposition.

Venezuela has always been a place where citizens have to live with a state whose public institutions lack credibility and whose perception of illegitimacy is deeply rooted. In that context, however, the opposition has already made a truly unprecedented decision, albeit one that many in Caracas won’t want to hear. Having fled the closed state-run media and increasingly authoritarian politics, Venezuela’s opposition has recently doubled down on finding ways to raise the stakes for the country’s next election.

They have held candlelight vigils to call for patience. They’ve taken to the street with petitions. And now they have declared a challenge to the legitimacy of the results. To put it bluntly, they intend to leave the voting booth this year and assume what many Latin Americans have long sensed: Their vote matters.

Over half of Venezuelans have never or have rarely voted; the opposition is trying to change that. Unlike in past elections, the Maduro regime and its allies cannot determine how many Venezuelans will participate in this election. The opposition will just have to hope the vast majority of them accept a result they may find inherently unacceptable. While the electoral body has the power to void the vote if they choose, the threat of force to cancel the election remains highly unlikely.

This democratic showdown is testing the willingness of Venezuelans to make a choice that could really shape their lives — and perhaps the world.

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